By: Mark Fitzgerald
When Nicaraguans voted Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega out of office in the stunning 1990 upset election, they put in his place the matriarch of a newspaper publishing family, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.
The vote expressed not simply disgust with the Sandinista’s authoritarian rule, but respect and admiration for Chamorro and her paper, La Prensa. For decades under the ownership of her husband, Pedro Chamorro, the paper was a staunch opponent of Somoza dictatorships. His assassination in 1978 was one of several violent incidents that touched off the civil war that brought the Sandinistas to power.
These days, though, official hostility and criminal intimidation has replaced those widespread feelings of respect and admiration.
Throughout the spring and early summer, journalists received a mounting number of death threats, including several e-mailed against La Prensa’s editorial cartoonist, Manuel Guill?n, after the publication of a caricature of Ortega.
Ortega himself made a bizarre statement at a June 18 press conference when he discussed the current Nicaraguan debate about whether the president or the judiciary has authority over the National Police. He used this chilling analogy:
“If tomorrow the president says to the police, go and put a pair of shots into a citizen, or put a pair of shots into Octavio Sacasa [owner of a television station], and then he tells the police put a pair of shots into La Prensa journalists, the police are not obliged to attack just because the president ordered it,” Ortega said, according to an account in La Prensa.
International free-press groups have expressed alarm at the anti-press rhetoric and overall climate of hostility. A delegation from the Miami-based Inter American Press Association (IAPA) had already concluded in April that constitutional “reforms” being pushed by Ortega and his odd-bedfellow allies in the corruption-tainted Liberal Party would hinder free expressions. President Enrique Bola?os vetoed one proposal that would significantly change tax exemptions for the news media.
IAPA President Alejandro Mir? Quesada, director of the Peruvian daily El Comercio, reacted to Ortega’s statement by saying, “public figures have a responsibility to be prudent when expressing opinions which can be interpreted as apologies for crimes or encourage actions that are contrary to press freedom and journalists’ safety.”
Those fears were realized the night of Aug. 14, when Adolfo Olivas Olivas, a correspondent for La Prensa since 1991, was shot to death by his regular taxi driver just 20 yards from his home in the northern city of Esteli. The driver, Santos Roberto Osegueda, surrendered to police three days later and said he killed the 47-year-old journalist after an argument.
Free-press groups, though, say that may not be the real motive for the murder.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that La Prensa Managing Editor Martha Marina Gonz?lez said Olivas had been receiving telephone death threats ever since his Aug. 1 article on international drug trafficking. “Msgr. Abelardo Mata, the bishop of Esteli and head of a local human rights group, said Olivas had told him he intended to name certain people, including civil servants, who were involved in illegal activities,” RSF said. He was concerned enough about the threats to ask another human rights worker to accompany him when he reported the threats to police.
But Olivas was not the only La Prensa correspondent threatened recently.
Heberto Jarqu?n Manzanares, who writes for La Prensa from the town of Rosita, located about 150 miles northeast of Managua, received threats after publishing articles about alleged irregularities of local land appropriations, IAPA said.
And less than a year ago, on Nov. 9, 26-year-old La Prensa reporter Mar?a Jos? Bravo, was killed as he was covering protests against the conduct of a municipal election in the northeastern city of Juigalapa. The city’s former mayor, Eugenio Hern?ndez Gonz?lez was found guilty of murder in January of this year and sentenced to 25 years in jail.
A run-down of recent events:
An occasional report on the working conditions for Latin American journalists
* Investigative radio reporter Jos? Candido Amorim Pinto was ambushed and shot to death July 1 by two men who fired at him about 20 times as he parked his car outside his radio station in the northeastern city of Carpina, RSF reported.
For the past 19 years, Amorim produced and presented an investigative report on Community Alternative Radio that focused on local corruption. He had been threatened several times in recent months, and was fired upon by two men on a motorcycle in May, RSF said.
* A court ordered the Porto Alegre newspaper Jornal J to pay a fine of about $13,400 to the mother of the state’s governor after finding that newspaper owner Elmar Bones “insulted” and defamed the mother’s family by reporting on the mysterious murder of her other son, during the investigation into allegations he embezzled money from the state electric company, the Lima, Peru-based Institute for Press and Society (IPYS) reported. The sentence cannot be appealed, the group added. As in other nations with “desacto,” or insult laws, truth is not necessarily a defense for journalists in Brazil.
Television journalist Daniel Coronell, a critic of President Alvaro Uribe’s plan to make peace with right-wing paramilitaries, fled the country Aug. 14 after death threats against his six-year-old daughter.
Imprisoned independent journalist Aldolfo Fern?ndez Sa?nz launched a hunger strike to protest the mistreatment of another imprisoned dissident, the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported Aug. 24. CPJ said it was worried about the health of Fern?ndez Sa?nz, one of 24 independent Cubans imprisoned in an April 2003 crackdown on dissidents. CPJ noted he is being held in a prison in the far east of the country, hundreds of miles from his family in Havana.
“We are very worried about the health of our colleague, Aldolfo Fern?ndez Sa?nz, who has been imprisoned for almost two and a half years solely for exercising his right to express his views,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We renew our calls on the Cuban government to release all imprisoned journalists immediately and unconditionally.”
* A 13-year-old boy accused Aug. 1 of killing a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agent yelled to reporters from his jail cell that he would escape and that when he did “I will escape to kill all of the journalists.” The boy has escaped from prison three times before.
* El Salvador-based association of anti-corruption investigative journalists known as Probidad on Aug. 23 urged the Honduran Congress to pass the “Access to Public Information and Habeas Data” bill, despite the opposition by the Honduran College (CPH) of Journalists, the Media Association, and the Honduran Council of Private Businesses. “If the bill becomes law, it would uphold the democratic principle of publicizing the state’s actions, protect the principle of public officials being accountable to the citizenry and protect personal data in the hands of public and/or private authorities,” Probidad said in a statement.
* An ex-police chief was arrested for alleged involvement in the November 2004 gangland-style slaying of Gregorio Rodr?guez Hern?ndez, a photographer with the Mazatlan edition of the Sinaloa newspaper El Debate, the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported July 8. Abel Enr?quez Zavala was detained after investigators linked him to a hit man working for the Sinaloa drug cartel, CPJ said, citing Mexican press reports. Escuinapa was shot to death as he and his family ate at a cafeteria. Prosecutors said they had not ruled out a personal motive for the murder, but CPJ noted that “Mexican journalists who work in the country’s northern areas and cover sensitive issues such as drug trafficking, organized crime, and political corruption are often targeted for attack because of their coverage.”
* An opposition party has proposed creating a special “Permanent Congressional Committee On the Increase of Aggression against Journalists and the News Media,” the Mexico City daily El Universal reported in August. “It’s terrible that this supposed transition we are living through in our country coincides with an increase in aggression against free expression,” Deputy Beatriz Mojica Morga of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) said.
* A reputed Tijuana drug cartel member, Rey del Billar, was arrested Aug. 9, and reportedly confessed to the June 2004 murder of Francisco Ortiz Franco, an editorial writer for the weekly Zeta who focused on corruption and drug trafficking issues. He was murdered in front of his two children as he was returning home from work.
* There was also a break in the murder this April 8 of Raul Gibb Guerrero, editor of La Opinion daily in Veracruz. Martin Rojas, an alleged leader of a gasoline smuggling ring, was arrested in August in the United States. According to RSF, members of that ring offered Gibb a bribe in an unsuccessful attempt to dissuade him from publishing an article about the smugglers.
Unknown persons sabotaged a vehicle belonging to the national daily ABC Color, wiring it with the apparent intention to cause a fire, while a reporter for the paper was covering a social event. The sabotage failed, and was discovered when the reporter could not start the car and opened the hood.
Earlier this summer, a crowd of approximately 80 people burst into the offices of the daily Diario La Costa in Puerto Cabello and attacked the paper’s staff. They were angry over an article reporting on a man who died trying to steal wire from electrical lines, IPYS reported in July. The mob, apparently relatives and friends of the man, insisted he was not a criminal. They hit a secretary and several reporters and threatened to kill the editor, Gustavo Rizquez. The confrontation lasted two hours and was brought under control only after police arrived.