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Cablegate: Nicaragua: Another Setback for Press Freedom,

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C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 MANAGUA 001151

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E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/10/2018
TAGS: PHUM PINR KDEM NU
SUBJECT: NICARAGUA: ANOTHER SETBACK FOR PRESS FREEDOM,
POPULAR PUNDIT TAKEN OFF AIR

REF: A. 08 MANAGUA 989
B. 08 MANAGUA 955
C. 08 MANAGUA 866
D. 08 MANAGUA 823
E. 07 MANAGUA 669

Classified By: Ambassador Robert Callahan for reasons 1.4 (b and d)

SUMMARY
- - - - -

1. (C) For the second time in five months, outspoken
political commentator Jaime Arellano was removed from the
television airwaves after the owners of the independent
television station Channel 2 succumbed to government pressure
to cancel his morning talk show, "El Dos en la Nacion" (Two
in the Nation). The move is widely seen as the Ortega
Administration's latest attempt to silence and intimidate its
critics, control the media, suppress freedom of expression,
and consolidate its power. The Sandinista official media,
namely Channel 4, Radio Ya, and its new weekly tabloid "El
19," have accused Arellano along with other media adversaries
of "sowing hatred" and being part of a "neoliberal plot of
corruption" against the Nicaraguan people. The Citizen Power
Councils (CPCs), meanwhile, have been dispatched throughout
Managua, mounting a "prayer campaign" against the media and
journalists under the slogan "love is more powerful than
hate." The cancellation of the Arellano show for the second
time in less than a year also indicates that the Ortega
government's communications strategy, developed by First Lady
Rosario Murillo to use fear to scare media outlets into
self-censorship, appears to be working. END SUMMARY

ADIOS, EL PINGUINO (GOODBYE MR. PENGUIN)
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

2. (SBU) Conservative-oriented political pundit Jaime
Arellano, nicknamed "el pinguino" (the penguin), hosted a
long-running popular morning talk show featuring prominent
Nicaraguan intellectuals, politicians, economists, analysts,
and others to debate, and analyze the Nicaraguan political
situation. After Channel 10 (a station with ties to the
Sandinista-operated Channel 4) took his show "El 10 en La
Nacion" (Ten in the Nation) off the air in April, he moved
over to Channel 2, considered the most independent TV station
in Nicaragua, where he continued the same program under the
new name of "El 2 en la Nacion." On August 22, the owners of
Channel 2, Octavio Sacasa and Martha Pasos de Sacasa,
announced the cancellation of Arellano's show. According to
multiple contacts, the decision was take under explicit
threats from the Ortega Administration that Channel 2 would
lose its broadcasting license, which is due to expire January
30, 2009, if they did not remove Arellano. (NOTE: They had
previously told InfoOff that it was one of their top-rated
programs. END NOTE.) In an official statement released
August 27, Channel 2 excused the cancellation by claiming
that Arellano's commentary was too inflammatory and asserting
that the best defense for freedom of expression is to protect
its "ethical practice" as a "social responsibility."
Although Channel 2 recognized the need for constructive
criticism and the freedom to question government policies
that affect the people, it justified its decision to cancel
Arellano's show on the grounds that "violence, whether verbal
or physical, and insults, cannot be praised, from wherever
they may come." Furthermore, Channel 2 asserted that it was
not a media of the opposition because it represented no
political party, rather it was an impartial, objective outlet
without partisan or ideological bias or affiliation. The
statement made no mention of government pressure or any
influence it may have had on the station's programming
decision.

3. (SBU) Arellano often generated controversy for his
confrontational style and tendency to pontificate. He has
been equally critical of the Constitutional Liberal Party
(PLC) as he has of the Sandinista National Liberation Front
(FSLN). Despite his aggressive style, his show served as a
vigilant watchdog over Nicaragua's political and economic
situation, highlighting government corruption and
politicization of the judiciary, frequently railing against
President Daniel Ortega's intentions to install a
dictatorship and perpetuate himself in power. Even those who
disagree with Arellano's style are alarmed by the Channel 2
decision, seeing it as an act of self-censorship and a
dangerous precedent for Nicaraguan press freedom. Several
sources consulted predict that Carlos Fernando Chamorro, who
hosts another popular program on Channel 8 and is highly
respected for his investigative journalism, will be the next
significant television program forced off the airwaves. They
also worry that Channel 2 is facing a similar fate as
Venezuela's RCTV, an opposition media that was forced to shut
down last year.

ANOTHER ACT OF INSTITUTIONAL TERRORISM?
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

4. (SBU) In a passionately delivered press conference held
the morning of August 25 at opposition-affiliated Radio
Corporacion, Jaime Arellano asserted that he did not resent
the owners of Channel 2 for their decision, stressing that
while he had the right to put his own life on the line by
criticizing the government, he did not have the right to
expect others to share this risk. Arellano explained that
members of the Channel 2 team were being harassed for their
association with his morning show. He lamented that the
Channel 2 decision had advanced the Ortega government's
strategy of "institutional terrorism" to intimidate media
owners. Arellano has been the target of death threats in the
past, and now feels particularly exposed to violence.
Pro-government Citizen Power Council (CPC) groups had staged
protests outside Channel 2 for several days prior to the
cancellation of Arellano's show and also gathered outside
Radio Corporacion during Arellano's August 25 press event.
Nevertheless, he exhorted his audience not to succumb to fear
and blackmail, and vowed to continue to fight for democracy.
He also announced his intention to present his case to the
Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and the National
Press Club in Washington, DC. Liberal National Assembly
deputies Eduardo Montealegre and Enrique Quinonez, running
together on the PLC-Vamos con Eduardo ticket for the Managua
mayorship, accompanied Arellano at his press conference, and
voiced their solidarity in defense of democracy.

5. (C) Many critics of the Ortega government expect that
these assaults on the independent media, including the threat
of pulling broadcasting licenses from television and radio
stations, will continue. The fact that the Ortega
Administration has demonstrated its intent to wield its power
to renew or cancel a broadcasting license, or control the
frequencies radio stations are allowed to access, is
troubling to journalists and media owners, and hangs over the
entire media sector like a "sword of Damocles." A number of
radio station owners are opting for self-censorship rather
than risk losing their media space. Radio 15 de Septiembre,
a conservative radio outlet and defiant opponent of the
Ortega government, is also facing the expiration of its
license in January. Dora Maria Tellez, an activist within
the dissident Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) and former
Sandinista militant, told poloff that by caving in to the
Ortega government's pressure, Channel 2 was falling into a
trap set by Ortega and Murillo. This would also embolden
similar attacks on other outlets and Nicaraguans who dare to
criticize the government's actions, The removal of one of
the strongest voices of opposition--Arellano--from TV
demonstrates the use of fear and intimidation is working and
signals that "no one was off limits." Furthermore, it
represents one more in a series of incremental infringements
on press freedom and freedom of expression accumulating since
Ortega assumed office 20 months ago (Refs. A, B) and reflects
that Murillo's communications strategy to exert full control
over the media is in full operation (Ref. D.)

COMING TO THE DEFENSE OF PRESS FREEDOM
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

6. (C) Concerned about the "chilling effect" that the
Channel 2 precedent sets, and that it could pave the way for
increased government control of the media environment, and in
anticipation that licenses for other radio and television
channels are soon due to expire, a number of Liberal National
Assembly deputies are now attempting to push through a bill
that would automatically renew media broadcasting licenses
for ten years. This proposed reform to the Law for the
Defense of Freedom of Expression, introduced by Eduardo
Montealegre, has been sitting at the Commission for
Education, Culture, Sports, and Social Communications Media
since July 2007. At the same time, however, there is also a
move underway to overhaul the telecommunications legislation,
known as Law 200, which resides with the Committee on
Infrastructure.

7. (C) According to media reports, FSLN deputies are
maneuvering to block or delay the passage of law on freedom
of expression by arguing that related media freedom issues
will be covered under the more comprehensive
telecommunications law. This is clearly a ploy to use the
cover of the legislative process to exert greater control
over media, because by the time the larger more complex
telecommunication law passes, it will already be too late for
some outlets whose licenses will have by then already
expired. Furthermore, with Mario Valle -- a nominally
independent deputy who consistently votes with the FSLN --
heading the commission with jurisdiction over media issues,
the deck appears to be stacked against those legislators
striving to defend an independent media. Civil society
organizations, such as Movimiento por Nicaragua, are calling
on the deputies to enact the law to extend media licenses.
Although the private sector typically avoids commenting on
political matters, the Superior Council of the Private Sector
(COSEP) and the Nicaraguan American Chamber of Commerce
(AMCHAM) issued a joint public statement and press release on
September 3 in support of the law to extend licenses and
strongly affirming the need to protect freedom of expression
as a right guaranteed by the Nicaraguan constitution.
Montealegre told the Ambassador on September 8 that the
Liberals have reached agreement to bring the issue of media
licenses to the full National Assembly in the coming weeks
and to hold a quick vote on a law to provide extension of the
licenses. Terms of the legislation are still being worked
out.


IS LOVE STRONGER THAN HATE ?
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

8. (C) In addition to using legal mechanisms to curtail
media freedom, the Ortega Administration is increasing the
use of its quasi-official media outlets and the Citizen Power
Councils (CPCs) to discredit the opposition and media as
"peddlers of hate and confrontation." Arellano was the first
target of this campaign. Just prior to the cancellation of
the Arellano show, on August 20, CPC squads, initially women
from Managua barrios and self-proclaimed "Christians of the
base" began congregating in front of Channel 2, La Prensa,
and El Nuevo Diario, to protest against hate and "pray" for
peace. They echoed the official government complaints
against the opposition media and implored the "end of
hatred." One protester accused Arellano of "spreading hate
and poison" against the Nicaraguan people, saying that he
never even talks about politics. Sporting white T-shirts
emblazoned with the slogan "Love is Stronger than Hate" and
the CPC symbol, written in Murillo's trademark pink font,
they carried simple white crosses and signs with biblical
quotes, playing religious music and hymns. These groups have
now set up permanent camps at all the major traffic circles
in Managua, contributing further to the government's
intimidation campaign. Commenting on the CPC prayer circles,
prominent Catholic bishop Monsignor Bernardo Hombach
expressed his regret that religion was being politicized in
an attempt to discredit the opposition media but doubted that
these protesters had much credibility with the general
public. This latest use of the CPCs is in keeping with
Murillo's communications strategy to exert greater control
over the opposition media (Ref. B).

9. (SBU) CPC operatives also congregated outside the Radio
Corporacion offices during the Arellano press conference.
Some fear that the CPC campaign combined with the negative
media treatment emanating from Sandinista-controlled outlets
could spark violence. They dismiss the CPC groups protesting
for prayer and love at the traffic circles around Managua as
a feeble attempt to sow fear, and discredit anyone critical
of the government. Though we note that, with all major
traffic circles "occupied" by CPCs, it would be difficult for
opposition groups to mount the large-scale protests seen in
June and July, CPC elements have demonstrated a willingness
to engage in violence when confronting opponents. Because the
police does not grant multiple permits for demonstrations in
the same space, the CPC prayer campaign has also served to
preempt other forms of protests.

10. (C) While the CPCs were "praying" for peace, love, and
reconciliation. official Sandinista outlets continued to
berate and discredit Arellano as both corrupt and a "fat
devil." As if to justify the absence of Arellano from the
airwaves, the FSLN's newly minted official tabloid style
weekly, "El 19" (named in honor of the July 19 victory of the
Sandinista Revolution), devoted a full page article accusing
Arellano of being a political agitator and denouncing him for
stealing money from the Nicaraguan Institute of
Telecommunications (TELCOR) during his previous employment
with the Bolanos Administration. (NOTE: The official media
have also added Arellano to their long-running television
attack ad against Eduardo Montealegre and Jaime Chamorro,
director of the leading center-right daily La Prensa, whom
they have incessantly accused of corruption and being part of
a neoliberal plot to steal from the Nicaraguan people. In
another ominous sign of an increasingly weakened media, these
partisan attack ads are no longer confined to Channel 4, and
are now appearing on a variety of other "independent
channels." END NOTE.)

COMMENT
- - - -

11. (C) The National Assembly appears to be taking the
latest threat to press freedom seriously and there is some
optimism that it will pass legislative reforms to better
protect freedom of expression. However, the FSLN's control
over the Assembly's mechanics, continued infighting among the
Liberals, and a focus on the municipal elections pose serious
obstacles to the effort. More ominously, the FSLN's effort
to intimidate and pressure independent media and silence its
critics, combined with its more aggressive use of official
communication channels to discredit opponents, has placed a
dark cloud over the media climate. The Channel 2 decision
indicates that the media can be pressured, and perhaps
manipulated, into self-censorship. By silencing one of the
government's fiercest and most tenacious critics in Arellano,
the government is sending a message to other media outlets
that they could be the next target.
CALLAHAN

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