The Nicaraguan beat

By: Timothy Pratt

Press plays key role in development of democracy

MANAGUA, Nicaragua ? Edgar Barberena’s rough voice comes from the cigarette he’s constantly drawing on. The voice, his cigarette, and the rings under his eyes, together with his stories, make him the classic veteran reporter, and, in fact, he’s been on the political beat in Nicaragua for 25 years.
“I remember when (former dictator Anastasio) Somoza was in power, in the late ’70s, and we used to do stories in code for the Sandinistas,” he began, another El Nuevo Diario reporter asleep on the couch behind us.
Barberena has been through what his country has been through ? in two decades, the transformation from brutal dictatorship to revolutionary socialism to electoral democracy. No other society can say the same. But, as a journalist, he’s also taken part in a remarkable, and little-known chapter in the history of freedom of the press.
“Many of us in the media would collaborate with the Sandinistas in their project to overthrow the Somozas, who had been in power for nearly a half-century,” he said. “If you published or broadcast anything against the Somoza government, the National Security Office would call to announce that your equipment was going to be confiscated. You could also be killed.
“And so we would run a metro story that began, ‘A taxi crashed into a bus at 9 a.m. on the corner of Roosevelt and Calle el Triunfo. The taxi driver’s id is available for family members to pick up at such and such a place and time ?’ And the rebels knew that this was a signal for where and when to meet that day.”
My interest in the media and freedom of the press in this Central American country was fed by a question-and-answer session on The Washington Post’s Web site. The session marked the Sandinista revolution’s recent 20th anniversary, which I was slated to cover. On the site, Post Central American bureau chief Serge Kovaleski drew attention to freedom of the press several times as a vital part of this country’s young democracy.
Since many people recall the images of rebels with automatic weapons entering Managua atop tanks ? followed by a decade of U.S.-backed warring backlash, ’90s peace pacts, Sandinista electoral fade-outs, internal bickering, and sex scandals ? this battle-worn, debt-weary country is not commonly thought of as a center of media liberties.
The anniversary seemed like a perfect time to look into this, since the whole country seems to be taking stock of both where it’s been these decades and where it’s going.
Upon arriving in Managua, one of the first things you notice as far as the press is concerned is that street hawkers need both hands to hold up their wares. Amazingly, this tropical capital of slightly more than a million people has five dailies. With illiteracy at somewhere around a third of the total population, this figure doubly impresses.
But only two papers rule the show ? Barberena’s El Nuevo Diario and La Prensa. Both have circulations that hover around 20,000. However, at 32, clean-cut editor in chief Eduardo Enriquez over at La Prensa couldn’t be more in contrast with his veteran colleague at the competition. La Prensa is definitely growing and recently became the first paper in Nicaragua to publish The Wall Street Journal as a weekly supplement.
In Enriquez’s office, a copy of a letter with a Sandinista official’s signature sits on his desk. In two, bureaucratically brief phrases, the missive orders La Prensa to shut down operations. The letter was written in 1986; the paper was reopened more than a year later, “due to international pressure,” says Enriquez.
Of course, the young editor hadn’t even stepped foot in La Prensa’s newsroom at the time. In fact, he spent 13 years outside the country, earning a degree in journalism from Florida International University in the United States.
But he’s conscious of how far the press has come in his homeland. In one of the ironies that a small, mercurial country like Nicaragua is bound to live through, his paper’s staff now includes several reporters who once worked on the official Sandinista publication, Barricada.
La Prensa’s editor says, “we’re still learning to handle the liberty we now have as journalists.”
Guillermo Rothschuh, dean of Nicaragua’s sole communications department, a former journalist, and a passionate observer of the media in his country, asserts, “Though censorship has practically been the norm in Nicaragua historically ? whether from Somoza or the Sandinistas ? the true opposition has always been the press. And the press has played a fundamental role in the development of our young democracy.”
Both Enriquez and Barberena trace the onset of freedom of the press to the country’s first democratic elections, which were conducted in 1990. Rothschuh points to a constitutional reform in 1995, making it illegal for the government to confiscate equipment from newspaper, radio, or tv news offices.
“In the last decade, we’ve learned a lot as journalists here in Nicaragua,” said Enriquez between interruptions by reporters bearing copy. “Before, the press was very political and party-driven. Now, people have shown that they want a serious, independent, and professional press ? one that helps the community.
“We’re also interested in professionalizing our trade and creating such tools as a Code of Ethics ? something we don’t have in the paper at the moment,” continued the editor, who as a teen-ager taught peasants to read under the Sandinista government.
The changing relationship between the press and the public seems to be working, since, according to a recent Gallup poll, the media were voted the country’s most trustworthy institution.
And both journalists and media owners are holding fast to the newfound liberties. As the chain-smoking political reporter Barberena put it, “We’ve thrown off our chains and developed independent journalism here. At this point in time, touching freedom of the press would be like touching a beehive.”

Pratt is a free-lance journalist based in Cali, Colombia.

(Editor & Publisher [Caption]
(copyright: Editor & Publisher September 18, 1999) [Caption]

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