Cablegate: The First 60 Days - Ortega Pressures Media


DE RUEHMU #0669/01 0712300
P 122300Z MAR 07

C O N F I D E N T I A L MANAGUA 000669




E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/06/2017


Classified By: Ambassador P. Trivelli for reason 1.4b

1. (C) SUMMARY: President Ortega's attitude and actions
towards the mainstream media in the first 60 days of his
administration have raised doubts about his commitment to
freedom of expression. Sounding more like an attack plan
than a government communications strategy, First Lady Rosario
Murillo's Communication Strategy labels the mainstream media
as "hostile" and warns that it will "mount a misinformation
campaign" against the Sandinistas that must be "confronted."
Her strategy reveals her intention to use only
Sandinista-friendly media to ensure her messages are
"published in an uncontaminated and direct manner." In one
of her first public moves as Coordinator of the Counsel for
Communications and Citizenry, Murillo centralized control of
all ministry media budgets and announced spending will be
reduced by 50 percent as an "austerity measure." Ortega's
mounting verbal attacks and maneuvers against the media all
suggest he is executing Murillo's plan. Ortega's promise to
dedicate 20 percent of each Sandinista National Liberation
Front (FSLN) deputy's discretionary social program budget to
support journalists has further divided the National
Journalist's Association via debate over the ethics of such a
move. Journalists fear that Ortega's recent hostility
towards the media may harden anti-press attitudes and trigger
more direct threats or violence, and recent criminal code
reforms contain vague language about penalizing
"unauthorized" use of "private" information. On the bright
side, Ortega's aggression towards the media may be helping to
unify the liberal opposition forces who are keenly aware of
the potential danger posed by restricting freedom of the

Murillo's Media Strategy - Message Branding & Control
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2. (SBU) Shortly after the January 10 inauguration, the
Ortega administration introduced a revised national seal
(escudo) -- designed by the First Lady -- and mandated that
all official government correspondence and communication,
including government projects and job announcements published
in the daily periodicals, use this new seal. Based on the
triangular form of the official seal, the added campaign
slogans and pastel pink and blue colors gave the revised seal
the unmistakable stamp of the FSLN. Political opposition
leaders immediately condemned, and eventually blocked,
official use of the seal as unconstitutional, but many viewed
it as a harbinger of things to come. Within days of taking
office, Ortega was already attempting to blur the lines
between party and State, essentially "re-branding" the State
as the FSLN. Many government entities are continuing to use
the Murillo seal despite the legislative ban, but the
government appears to be taking care to use the official
national seal on documents that involve legal or official
matters tht could be challenged in the courts.

3. (SBU) On February 1, Murillo, the Coordinator of the
newly formed Counsel of Communication and Citizenry,
circulated, strictly for internal use only, a copy of her
Communication Strategy to other members of the Counsel
(septel). In the rambling seventeen-page document, eerily
reminiscent of Ortega's presidential campaign strategy of
Peace and Reconciliation, Murillo labels the larger media
organizations as "rightist" and "hostile" to the Sandinistas
and emphasizes the need to control national and international
public perceptions by controlling published images and
messages. Murillo states that "there will be strong
opposition to our project from the media of the right" and
that "they will mount a misinformation campaign against it"
which the Sandinistas must "predict in order to successfully
confront." To control the government's messages, Murillo
writes that "we will use our media so that our messages are
published in an uncontaminated and direct manner, as we did
during the campaign."

4. (SBU) The leaked sQtegy elicited consternation and
criticism from main stream media organizations such as
Channel 2 TV, La Prensa newspaper, and even the left-leaning
El Nuevo Diario newspaper, all who fear that Murillo's direct
references to "our media" and the "hostile right" betray an
underlying media prejudice that could polarize the media
environment. Following the leak, Murillo publicly stated
that the media's right is to obtain information related to
the government's activities, but warned that the government's
right is to see the "truth respected and the truth published"
and that the media "must correct its mistakes."

5. (C) COMMENT: From the tone and wording in Murillo's
Communications Strategy, there seems to be little doubt that
she regards the established mainstream media as a threat to
Ortega that should be controlled. Ortega and Murillo's
actions leading up to, and following, the internal release of
the Strategy would indicate that it is being implemented.
This cable attempts to identify and outline what we believe
are some of the Strategy's implementation mechanisms during
the first 60 days of the Ortega administration. END COMMENT.

Phase I - Exclude the Opposition Media
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6. (C) During Ortega's campaign - managed by Murillo - media
access was tightly controlled, and FSLN-affiliated media were
granted preferential access to Ortega. Right-leaning media,
such as La Prensa and Channel 2, were often excluded or had
to rely on Sandinista journalists for information or
instructions. Since Ortega took office in early January,
these journalists have repeatedly complained to Public
Affairs officers that they are being excluded from official
information and events, and that potential government sources
are specifically being instructed not to talk to them.
Embassy press officers have directly witnessed Murillo using
Sandinista-affiliated media as interlocutors with other media
at events and employing Sandinista news outlets as "official
press" for the administration, especially before the
inauguration and during the first few weeks of the new

7. (U) In an open letter from La Prensa to President Ortega
published on March 2, highlighting the newspaper's growing
concern about Ortega's attitude towards the media, La Prensa
points out that Ortega signed the 2001 Declaration of
Chapultepec which prohibits restrictions to freedom of the
press. Chapter five of the agreement states "Censoring in
advance, restrictions on the circulation of the media or
their divulging of information, the arbitrary imposition of
information, the creation of obstacles to the free-flow of
information, and limitations to the free exercising and
mobility of the press are in direct opposition to the freedom
of the press."

Phase Two - Control the Purse Strings
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8. (U) At the behest of Murillo, on January 29, Treasury
Minister Alberto Guevara, circulated a confidential memo to
all ministers, vice ministers and the presidents of the
autonomous State agencies stating that Murillo's Counsel of
Communication would henceforth coordinate and authorize all
government publicity expenditures and travel, totaling just
over 90 million Cordoba (US$ 5 million). (NOTE: Nearly all
private media derive some percentage of their revenue from
government-paid advertisements such as job announcements,
calls for proposals, etc. END NOTE.) Murillo, angry that
the memo was leaked, justified the decision as part of a
government "austerity program" that would re-direct up to
fifty percent of the publicity budget to schools, medicine,
hospitals, low income housing and other programs to benefit
the poor. She emphasized that only necessary campaigns --
such as those in environment and health -- would be financed.

9. (U) Following the announcement, Ortega indirectly lashed
out at La Prensa and Channel 2 by claiming that "eighty
percent of the state's advertising budget is concentrated in
the two big media (companies)." In a more measured tone,
Murillo indicated that she intended to "break the habit of
financing the big communication media" which "respond to
another vision of our country that does not benefit the
majority" in favor of "communication from the people to the
people" as articulated in Murillo's Communication Strategy.

10. (U) Murillo's memo evoked an immediate reaction from
both left and right-leaning independent press, who fear that
Ortega and Murillo will use the budget as a tool to control
the media. In response to Ortega's "eighty percent" claim,
La Prensa, in its Open Letter of March 2, declared that it
received just 13 percent of the state's publicity budget in
2006. Senior La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario managers publicly
stated that their papers will not be seriously hurt by the
potential cut-back, but stressed that smaller independent
print and radio media, which are more dependent on
government-sponsored advertising revenue, will be
significantly affected.

11. (SBU) The reaction by opposition forces in the National
Assembly was equally strong. Deputies and legal experts
claim that Murillo's move violates Law 290, Law 438, and
Article 130 of the Constitution. According to Law 290,
counsels created by the Executive cannot handle finances and
cannot make decisions which belong to the ministries (ref.
A). Article 11 of Law 438, the law of probity, states that
the spouse of a public servant -- in this case the President
-- is not eligible to exercise public functions (Ref. C).
Article 130 of the Constitution establishes that no one
within the State powers can name functionaries who have close
relationship to them. Thus far, however, the National
Assembly's protests and legislative maneuverings seem to have
had little affect on the First Family.

12. (C) Despite the direct impact on their public
communications budgets and independence, the ministers have
voiced little to no public opposition to the plan. In
private, National Assembly opposition leaders, including
representatives froU#EDQ~irez Noguera -- who was seen
as a moderate with independent ideas -- as Minister of the
Family after only 21 days may serve as an example for other
ministers contemplating ministerial independence.

Phase Three - Damage the Media's Public Image
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13. (U) On February 20, during the closing ceremonies of a
meeting with 615 members of the National Police, Ortega
launched phase three of his attack on the media by implying
that the media is robbing money from the State through tax
exonerations. Ortega labeled the media as "fat" and "getting
fatter" and scoffed that the media are "enriching themselves
doing business, not charity or cultural work." Ortega very
shrewdly linked his argument to public security by claiming
that such exemptions take money from State coffers that would
have otherwise been spent buying gas for the police. Several
times during his speech, Ortega called on the media to listen
to their "consciences" and their "hearts" and to pay their

14. (U) Since delivering his exoneration speech, Ortega has
continued and broadened his attacks. On February 22, Ortega
directly criticized La Prensa for running a cartoon in
reference to Ortega's appointment of Cardenal Miguel Obando
as coordinator of the Counsel of Peace and Reconciliation,
calling it "disrespectful" and "a dirty campaign." On
February 27, while announcing that he would ask the National
Assembly to cancel exonerations for the media, banks, and
social organizations, Ortega again singled out the media for
attack -- especially La Prensa and Channel 2 -- when he asked
how "in a country so small and with so much poverty" could
"the two largest media receive US$ 22 million in exonerations
in 2006?"

15. (C) The media have attempted to counter Ortega's claims
by publishing exoneration facts and figures and highlighting
the legal precedent for exonerations. In 2004, the most
recent year for which official figures are available, the
media sector accounted for only 1.6 percent of the State's
total exonerations. In clear contrast to Ortega's claim that
La Prensa and Channel 2 received US$ 22 million in
exonerations in 2006, budget experts estimated that total
exonerations for the media sector ranged from 40-50 million
Cordoba (US$ 2.2-2.7 million). Both Article 68 of
Nicaragua's Constitution and point 7 of the 2001 Declaration
of Chapultepec, signed by Ortega, allow for the tax-free
importation of certain materials used in print production
such as ink, newsprint, machinery, and parts. Using this
legal basis, opposition leaders in the National Assembly have
sharply criticized Ortega's demands to cancel the media's
exoneration rights. (NOTE: Ortega's argument, while
dramatically over-stated, has a valid basis. Media contacts
have privately admitted to public affairs staff that all the
major media do import "extra" supplies for their for-profit
printing businesses. END NOTE).

16. (C) COMMENT: As with Ortega's earlier claim that the two
largest media received 80 percent of the government's
advertising revenue, his exoneration claim is completely
unfounded. Ortega is attempting to polarize public opinion
against Channel 2 and La Prensa -- the "belligerent right"
referred to in Murillo's Communications Strategy -- by
painting them as heartless, greedy businesses willing to
sacrifice public safety and to keep Nicaragua poor in order
to make a dollar. It is unclear at this point if the media's
counter-strategy of publishing objective facts and figures
and explaining the legal basis for exoneration will defuse
Ortega's attempt to rally public opinion against them. The
media is concerned that the public may view their
counter-protests as the complaints of spoiled children being
told "no" for the first time. A review of over fifty reader
comments on the recent articles related to Murillo's strategy
document and the exoneration issue show roughly the same
proportion of support for the Ortega/Murillo position as
Ortega received in the presidential elections, indicating
that his loyal Sandinista base is listening. END COMMENT.

Phase Four - Blur Lines Between Criminal and Journalist
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- -

17. (U) With the publicity budget and exoneration issues
still under heated discussion, Ortega has thrown an
additional log on the fire - Penal Code reform. Two articles
of the proposed new code - Articles 194 and 197 -- have
evoked strong reactions from ALN deputies in the National
Assembly, the media, and human rights organizations, citing
concerns over freedom of expression. Article 194 establishes
prison sentences of six months to two years for anyone
intercepting, divulging, or distributing any communication
deemed "private by judicial authorities." Further, the
article would penalize those who distribute or reveal
"important information" with sentences of one to three years
in prison. Article 197 says that persons who find themselves
in legitimate possession of private written or recorded
communications would face 70-100 days in prison if they
published such materials without authorization. However, the
article stipulates that this penalty would not apply to
"matters in the public interest."

18. (SBU) FSLN and Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC)
deputies claimed that these two articles are part of the
current Criminal Code and that journalistic sources would not
be affected "as long as they don't pass information of a
private character." Further, these deputies insisted that
the interception of telephone calls, telegraphs, or other
forms of communication "have nothing to do with the
activities of the media." They also stated the belief that
these articles would help curb the Nicaraguan press'
proclivity for "red news" -- showing victims of violent
accidents and crimes on television -- by requiring
journalists to obtain permission from victims' families
before publishing photographs or video. (COMMENT: In this
sense, the Nicaraguan media is its own worst enemy. Because
professional standards are low and there is a lot of
overly-sensational and, at times, completely inaccurate
reporting, the media has handed Ortega ammunition to use
against it. END COMMENT).

19. (U) Despite such assurances, ALN deputies, media
organizations, and civil society groups have expressed
serious doubts about the reforms, stating that a law based on
subjective or arbitrary determination of the private or
public nature of information leaves the door wide open to
corruption and political manipulation. As such, there would
be no guarantees of freedom of expression.

Phase Five - Divide and Conquer
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20. (U) In the wake of the financial uncertainty created by
Murillo's centralization of government publicity budgets and
Ortega's goal to cancel exonerations, Ortega signed an accord
on March 1, Nicaraguan National Media Day, with the
Nicaraguan Journalists Association (CPN) promising upwards of
3 million Cordoba (US$ 177,000) to journalists. Under the
12-point accord, each of the 38 Sandinista deputies would
dedicate 20 percent of their 420,000 Cordoba (US$ 23,333)
budget for scholarships and social programs to a fund for
journalists administered through the CPN. Because the CPN is
comprised of two distinct journalist associations, however,
the announcement of the accord triggered conflicting

21. (SBU) BACKGROUND NOTE: About 70 percent of CPN's members
are from the Nicaraguan Journalists Union (UPN) and 30
percent from the Association of Nicaraguan Journalists (APN).
APN is generally associated with the political right. While
both the APN and UPN include journalists from all walks, many
more employees of the large media organizations such as
Channel 2 TV and La Prensa are APN-affiliated. APN
journalists tend to be better trained and have higher
professional standards. UPN is generally associated with the
political left and includes a myriad of smaller news
organizations which have historically been more flexible in
the application of professional ethics. END NOTE.

22. (U) The APN journalists have criticized the accord on
several grounds. First, they see it as an attempt to
legitimize the probably illegal appointment of Murillo as
Coordinator of the Counsel for Communication and Citizenry by
honoring her as a signatory to the document. Second, because
the funds would come exclusively from the FSLN deputies, they
believe there is a serious risk to journalistic objectivity.
Third, journalists could lose credibility with the public if
they were perceived or proven to be beholden to one political
party. In contrast, the UPN -- the majority voice in the CPN
-- supports the accord because it could offset the potential
revenue loss caused by the consolidation and reduction of
ministry publicity budgets.

23. (C) COMMENT: As witnessed in the political campaign,
the Sandinistas' ability to keep the ALN and PLC divided was
devastating to the Liberals. With the CPN accord, Ortega may
be attempting to divide the media to the same effect.
Although the media has traditionally been sharply divided
along political lines, this move is perhaps the most
dangerous because it could change the nature of the division
from political/ideological to personal if journalists in
favor of the accord see those opposed to it as threatening
their livelihood. This perception could fuel further
polarization among the media and erode professional standards
as the market becomes more cut-throat. A media so divided
would be much easier to manipulate to both misinform and
distract attention from key issues that require vigorous
public debate and scrutiny. Unfortunately, according to
public affairs officers, there appears to be little appetite
among media organizations to unify and work together despite
clearly understanding the danger of remaining divided. END

Emboldening the Masses
- - - - - - - - - - - -

24. (U) According to media reports and public affairs
contacts, since the start of Ortega's verbal attacks on the
media, journalists have reported growing hostility and an
increase in the number of personal threats. There is concern
that Ortega's overt verbal attacks on the media are perceived
as tacit approval to carry out individual acts of violence
and threats against journalists. During the last week of
February, Jaime Arellano from Channel 10 reported receiving
death threats and discovered the lugnuts on his car had been
loosened after making some hard-hitting comments against
President Ortega, while journalist Moises Absalon from
Channel 23 also reported loosened lugnuts. Continued
hostility towards mainstream media could also discourage
advertisers from placing ads for fear of tarnishing their own
images in the public eye, further hurting the mainstream
media companies.

25. (C) COMMENT: By demonizing the mainstream media --
linking "greed" to public safety problems and the country's
poverty -- while promising to deliver "uncontaminated and
direct" messages to the people, Ortega and Murillo may be
attempting to foment public resentment towards and rejection
of the mainstream media. This focus could serve to both
"soften up" the public, making it more receptive to Ortega's
message, and create self-censorship among mainstream
journalists worried about reprisals. Further, attacking the
media could fuel public perceptions that "controls" or
"limits" on "irresponsible" media should be allowed. END

Silver Lining - Opposition Unifying in National Assembly
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26. (SBU) Through his use of a broad spectrum of measures to
attack and potentially weaken the press, Ortega is providing
opposition forces ample opportunity to unify. Murillo's
appointment as coordinator of the Counsel for Communication
and Citizenry was roundly condemned by opposition members in
the National Assembly who view her appointment as illegal.
Although the ALN, MRS, and PLC caucuses are not unanimous in
their disapproval of Ortega's tactics, all are cognizant of
the potential danger posed by restricting press freedom. The
ALN and MRS have been in lock-step in opposing each step
taken against the media with the exception of the accord
signed between Ortega and the CPN, which MRS deputy Victor
Hugo Tinoco characterized as having "positive value" while
ALN deputies were sharply critical. On the exoneration
issue, PLC deputy Wilfredo Navarro and others joined the MRS
and ALN in supporting exoneration for the media and
questioning Ortega's intentions. There is a growing
realization among deputies that the National Assembly is the
"Front Line" against Ortega (Ref B).

© Scoop Media

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