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Toni Solo: McNews in Nicaragua

McNews in Nicaragua

by Toni Solo, August 18th 2010

McClatchy News has again convincingly demonstrated the complicity of mainstream corporate news media as the pliant propaganda arm of the US State Department. McClatchy reporter Tim Johnson wrote a brace of articles (1) based on what was clearly a brief visit to Managua, Nicaragua's capital. His articles add up to a superficial smear job against Nicaragua's Sandinista government and its leader Daniel Ortega.

These reports from McClatchy News are a kind of ersatz anti-news. They have the same relation to good, factual information as fast junk-food does to a healthy balanced diet. For McNews, as for its corporate competitors, satisfying investors, defending market share, keeping advertisers happy, stringing along with official government comment all seem to take priority over giving a true and fair view of events.

By now, the corporate anti-Sandinista litany on Nicaragua is quite familiar. Most McNews-style reports always have a giveaway to alert readers they are ingesting dense psy-warfare depleted-plutocracy junk. Tim Johnson's reports are no exceptions. Half way through the August 5th article entitled, “Despite constitution, Nicaragua's Ortega plans to stay in power”, Johnson reports “A slight paunch, a receding hairline and a bigger bank account distinguish Ortega from his days as a leader of the Sandinista front, which battled the U.S.-backed Contras and ruled from 1979 to 1990.”

The factual sum total of that sentence is that Daniel Ortega is over thirty years older than he was in 1979 - hardly a scoop. Johnson laces the completely trivial factual content of the sentence with sly innuendo. After all, the only reason to mention that Daniel Ortega has “a bigger bank account” - as most people would do over their lifetime – is to imply that Ortega in some way illicitly enriched himself over the years.

This anti-reporting McNews pap bulks up the article's false argument that Daniel Ortega is violating the country's constitution by intending to run as a candidate for the presidential elections due in 2011. A few months ago, Nicaragua's Supreme Court ruled on a legal challenge to a 1990s legislative constitutional reform that changed the rules on eligibility for municipal and presidential elections. Nicaragua's 1987 constitution has been changed at various times over the last twenty years. Just as, in the US, the Supreme Court rules on disputes over what is or is not constitutional, that same role is performed by Nicaragua's Supreme Court.

So it is completely false of Johnson and his McNews editors to use the headline “Despite constitution, Nicaragua's Ortega plans to stay in power”. In Nicaragua, the country's Supreme Court decides what is constitutional, not some neocolonial corporate US McNews outfit. Bloated with that kind of self-important neocolonial cant, the article is virtually fact free once you start poking at it. Johnson's abuse of the facts and his penchant for vital omissions is as egregious as the way he packs his articles with multiple quotes from the opposition, while cherry-picking isolated quotes taken out of context from a single conversation with a government economic adviser.

Johnson writes “Ortega also has made it clear that he's willing to shut down the National Assembly if it doesn't comply with his wishes.” That disinformation is based on banter between President Ortega and a high level group of business representatives at a meeting between Nicaragua's business community and the government. Johnson makes it sound as though Ortega expressed some kind of clear intention to try and intimidate the National Assembly.

Later in the article, Johnson attempts to give more context to that false allegation. But the fact that he and his McNews editors placed such a flagrant falsehood early in the article betrays their bad faith. Most readers of any given article only read the first few paragraphs. It is common corporate media McNews practice to pack disinformation into the first few paragraphs so as to get the propaganda message across. Subsequently, in the rest of the article, they can elaborate at greater length, giving themselves something approaching an alibi for the toxic disinformation junk they passed off to begin with.

In fact, in this case, Ortega put it to the assembled business leaders that, if Nicaraguan society in general, including them, authorized him to, then he would be prepared to act in the event of a critical breakdown in the legislature. Johnson does not know that because he never saw the exchange. As becomes clear later in his article, much of his journalism is partially-sourced junk puff-toad hearsay.

Similarly, Johnson writes, Daniel Ortega “showed little inclination to ensure that next year's elections are free and fair. A key aide rejected letting international election observers monitor the vote.” Here, Johnson stuffs an isolated off-the-cuff quote from a government economic adviser into the McNews information mangle in order to wring out a non-existent official presidential position on international election monitors. As in the previous false allegation, he elaborates somewhat later in the article.

The facts are that every single election in Nicaragua in recent years, even the regional and municipal elections, let alone the presidential and national legislative elections, have all been monitored by foreign election monitors. That was true in the 2008 municipal elections too, despite mainstream corporate McNews-style media falsely reporting the opposite. In Nicaragua, the Supreme Electoral Council - a separate power of State from the Executive - defines the norms as regards election monitoring.

Government routinely facilitates the conditions necessary for election monitoring to take place in accordance with those Supreme Electoral Council norms. Tim Johnson could easily have verified that reality by talking to Roberto Rivas, the President of the Consejo Supremo Electoral. Rivas is generally very accessible to the media. But the people Johnson decided to use as information sources were the same old nationally discredited toadies-to-the-oligarchy who are always trotted out to satisfy the corporate news and State Department propaganda line.

They all appear in Johnson's article – Eduardo Montealegre, a banker indicted for multi-million dollar fraud; Carlos Fernando Chamorro unscrupulous scion of Nicaragua's Chamorro monopolistic news media family; Vilma Nuñez de Escorcia, disingenuous ex-Sandinista human rights bureaucrat who has repeatedly and absurdly described Nicaragua as a dictatorship. Ex-mayor of Managua, Moises Hassan, also makes an appearance.

Sergio Ramirez, the novelist, gets a McNews outing as does Dora Maria Tellez, former Sandinista health minister. They all represent a tiny prosperous clique apparently eaten away with resentment and venomous hatred for their former FSLN colleagues. They and their incompetent political buddies – supported by their patrons among the United States and European Union governments - have been completely out-manoeuvred by the Sandinista FSLN led by Daniel Ortega.

When McNews can't source a fact, no worries – journalists like Tim Johnson readily invent them. Try this, “Venezuela sells Nicaragua crude oil at half price, which Ortega can resell, using the profit for whatever he wants. The deal began when Ortega was elected in 2006 after defeats in 1996 and 2001.”

The facts are, Venezuela's State oil company PDVSA sells oil and oil derivatives to ALBANISA a mixed capital company owned by PDVSA and the Nicaraguan State oil company PETRONIC. ALBANISA pays half the price within 30 days and the balance is repayable at very low interest over 20 years. Pending repayment, the balance is paid half into a fund ultimately under the auspices of the ALBA trading framework's Social Fund and half into a fund managed by CARUNA, a national cooperative savings institution which manages large sums of money for numerous foreign institutions promoting economic development in Nicaragua.

The entities concerned, the private company ALBANISA, the State company PETRONIC and ALBA-CARUNA are all subject to the relevant audit and tax reporting standards. They are overseen by bodies like the National Assembly's Economic Commission, the country's national taxation authority, the national body responsible for supervising banks and other financial entities and the national Customs authority. The State company PETRONIC is subject to audit by the national audit body known as the Controller General's Office.

An audit of PETRONIC was completed recently by the Controller General's Office which made only trivial technical recommendations to improve the State body's financial controls and reporting. Hardly McNews fit to print, hence its absence from Johnson's extensive anti-Ortega farrago. The ALBA companies state that the contractual terms of their transactions require all funds to be used for purposes related to social and economic development. So McNews and Tim Johnson's article simply invented a falsehood and printed it as fake-fact, a kind of news-botulism to poison their readers' minds against Daniel Ortega.

To continue the news-botulism salad, Johnson gratuitously adds , “Ortega wheels around Managua in a Mercedes-Benz sport utility vehicle, and his offspring are known to enjoy luxury cars. 'His sons have already savored the money. Many of them drive Range Rovers, Mercedes and BMWs in Costa Rica. They like what the oligarchs have. Ortega is starting to enjoy it, too,' said Eduardo Montealegre.”

Even if Montealegre's glib remark were true, why should Ortega's family not enjoy what other well-off middle class young adults do? The remarks are a non sequitur coming from California Dreamin' Tim Johnson. Coming from an oligarch banker indicted for fraud like Eduardo Montealegre, they are downright hypocrisy, his trademark.

Well into this McNews article Tim Johnson does actually get one fact right. “Most of the nine "comandantes" who formed the party's national directorate left it years ago.” That is true. It is also the case that they claim to be morally superior to their former colleagues in the FSLN whose leadership they accuse of being amoral opportunists. Well, that all depends from what perspective you look at things.

Of the nine comandantes, four - Jaime Wheelock, Victor Tirado Lopez, Humberto Ortega and Luis Carrion - have all become prosperous businessmen. Plenty of people in Nicaragua across the political spectrum regard them as amoral opportunists. Important, highly relevant facts like that contradict the poisonous McNews message. The political nitty-gritty now is that the party of ex-Sandinistas like Victor Tirado, Luis Carrion, Dora Maria Tellez and Sergio Ramirez enjoys less than 2% support in Nicaragua. Even the right wing opinion polls give the FSLN led by Daniel Ortega around 40% support with the opposition parties totaling under 30% and the rest don't-knows.

To try and reinforce the false image of the FSLN government he and his McNews editors are trying to create, Johnson writes, “Members of the Ortega Cabinet rarely speak in public.” This ridiculous untruth is completely absurd. Ministers like Agriculture Minister Ariel Bucardo or Samuel Santos the Foreign Minister, or Sonia Castro the Health Minister or officials like the President of the Central Bank Antenor Rosales and their colleagues frequently talk to the news media, appearing regularly on TV and radio. Only a know-nothing foreigner in town for a day or two could possibly believe such nonsensical claims coming from heavily truth-challenged individuals like Sergio Ramirez and his sidekicks.

Johnson seems miffed that Rosario Murillo, Daniel Ortega's wife and a key architect of FSLN strategy, “didn't respond to an e-mail sent to her personal account.” How sensible of her given that what she says would very definitely have been cherry-picked and distorted in the same the way as Johnson's conversation with President Ortega's economic strategist Bayardo Arce. At this point Johnson wheels out as exhibit A, Nicaragua's renowned centre-right I'm-a-celebrity-get-me-out-of-here stage-prop, Sergio Ramirez. Ramirez is a leading architect of his Sandinista Renewal Movement's stunning plunge into political oblivion. In Nicaragua, only fiction loving foreign journalists like Tim Johnson pay any attention to him.

Johnson goes on to tag Daniel Ortega as a hypocrite, writing , “he's cooperated with Washington on anti-narcotics and immigration matters, lashing out at U.S. imperialism only to rally domestic support.” Johnson's intellectual dishonesty is matched only by his laziness. In every international forum at which he speaks, whether it's the Rio Group, the OAS, UNASUR, or the Ibero-American Summits, Daniel Ortega consistently criticizes US government cynicism and double standards. Johnson's pathetic slur is easily refuted by a quick search on the web.

Johnson's failure to recognize an outstanding statesman when he sees one, comes as no surprise, since, in the US, they don't exist. Politically and diplomatically, Daniel Ortega and colleagues like former UN General Secretary Miguel D'Escoto have proved more than a match for their US counterparts. With its economic system in massive housing-and-unemployment seizure, the US government has had to resort to brute militarization and support for military coups in order to roll back by intimidation the successful regional diplomacy Nicaragua had pushed dramatically forward together with ALBA allies like Venezuela and Cuba up until the US-government supported 2009 military coup in Honduras.

To try and make his forlorn case stick, Johnson persistently resorts to blatant omission. Another example, “In early January, Ortega made another move that critics decried, decreeing that 25 government officials, including two allies on the Supreme Court, could keep their jobs even though their constitutional terms had expired.” Here, Johnson blithely omits the constitutional crisis caused by the opposition in National Assembly unconstitutionally sabotaging the election of new officials to important posts including magistrates on the Supreme Court and the Supreme Electoral Council as well as the Controller General's Office, among others.

Critics of the opposition's treacherous sabotage get airbrushed out by Johnson, only Ortega's critics get a hearing. In fact, Ortega's decree expressly stipulates that the various officials, among whom figure a good number of individuals allied with Nicaragua's political opposition, should remain in their posts until such time as the National Assembly votes for their replacements. Clearly, Johnson leaves that bit out because it makes the Nicaraguan opposition, whom he and his McNews editors blatantly favour, look bad.

That self-evident bias is clear in Johnson's citation of only opposition-friendly opinion polls. McNews states, “Opinion polls gauge Ortega's public support at 35 to 38 percent, which would seem slim except that the political opposition is deeply divided.” Tim Johnson only had to check out polls regularly published this year by Consulta Siglo Nuevo, a company sympathetic to the FSLN government, to get poll results that look very different.

The Consulta Siglo Nuevo poll in May this year found that 52% of people think President Ortega is doing a good job. 44.9% of those polled said they would definitely vote for Daniel Ortega to continue in government. Over 20% said they might do so. In July, a Consulta Siglo Nuevo poll in Nicaragua's capital Managua found that over 47% of people polled would definitely vote for Daniel Ortega to continue in government with over 14% saying that they might do so. Those figures put a completely different light on the figures quoted by McNews.

Tim Johnson continues his McNews mixture of invention, falsehood, omission and shreds of truth in another article where he elaborates and, in part, makes amends for his failure to report accurately the reality of Venezuela's development cooperation with Nicaragua. This article - “Nicaragua finds huge patron in Venezuela's Chavez” - acknowledges that Venezuela's development cooperation has, among other important achievements, helped transform Nicaragua's domestic agricultural economy.

But Venezuela's economic support has been so successful mainly because Daniel Ortega's government has worked hard to diversify Nicaragua's trade and development cooperation relationships. Cooperation from traditional aid partners like the US, Canada and the European Union countries has been supplemented not just with development support from Venezuela but also from Russia, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Iran, Brazil and Mexico. Record foreign investment has helped Nicaragua generate record exports based mainly on record domestic agricultural production. All this completely gives the lie to claims that Nicaragua is hopelessly dependent on Venezuelan funding – which is the main argument made here by McNews.

In any case, Tim Johnson hardly deserves credit for acknowledging major advances in Nicaragua's economic and social indicators. These have been confirmed by the World Bank, the IMF, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, UNESCO and the Pan-American Health Organization as well as other regional multilateral institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration. While admitting, as it were through gritted teeth, the transformation of Nicaragua's agriculture and infrastructure, Johnson stays on the US State Department message, alleging that Venezuelan funding “created a web of Ortega-controlled companies with no public oversight, making the president a force in Nicaragua's economy and blurring the lines between what belongs to him, to his party and to the citizenry.”

But ALBA-CARUNA and ALBANISA as well as other ALBA companies like the food enterprise ALBALINISA are all subject to the same controls as other private sector businesses and financial institutions and, ultimately to majority shareholder PDVSA and that company's oversight bodies. A correct translation of this McNews item might well be, “the FSLN have freed up resources to benefit people in Nicaragua that would otherwise have been hijacked by a corrupt ruling class used to having things all their own way.....”

Johnson cites more or less neutral analysts like Alejandro Martinez Cuenca who confirm dramatic drops in rural and urban poverty over the last five years – 15% in overall poverty and 8% in extreme poverty - as a result of policies implemented by Nicaragua's Sandinista government under Daniel Ortega, funded largely, but not solely, with Venezuelan assistance. But Johnson and his McNews editors still feel bound to quote the disingenuous claim by ex-Sandinista Vilma Nuñez de Escorcia that poverty is as bad as it ever was. Johnson failed to point out that Martinez Cuenca's study was funded by European development agencies – no friends of the FSLN – with technical assistance from the World Bank.

Johnson notes, “Critics of the Venezuelan aid deny that it's reduced rural poverty, alleging that Ortega has siphoned off the money to strengthen his party and himself.” In fact, the Nicaraguan government can point to independent surveys which confirm data on poverty reduction. By contrast, Johnson and the people he very clearly sympathizes with who oppose the FSLN government are unable to back up their accusations that Venezuelan aid has been corruptly diverted for squalid personal aggrandizement, whereas the hugely positive practical results of all that investment are there for all to see. It would be surprising if an ALBA-related financial corruption scandal did not happen some time because that is in the nature of organizations anywhere managing large sums of money and wielding great power. But there seem to be no signs of such a scandal now and Tim Johnson reports nothing to indicate that such a scandal might be imminent.

As part of the deceitful US State Department McNews propaganda line, Johnson alleges that the purchase linked to ALBANISA of local TV Channel 8 meant “temporarily forcing off the air the debate program of one of Ortega's fiercest critics, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, who spent months finding another private channel that was willing to risk the government's wrath to host his show.”

In fact, Chamorro's program was not “forced off the air”. Chamorro himself chose to leave the station. Tim Johnson could readily have sourced a piece by Associated France Press on Janury 25th this year, “Opposition journalist Chamorro closes two opinion programs in Nicaragua” quotes Chamorro as justifying his decision – no one else's - to shut his two programs on Channel 8. AFP reports “Chamorro said, 'This is a matter of principle', asserting that the channel 'is now associated with party political and government interests.' ” If Chamorro had difficulty getting back on the air, the most likely reason will have been that hardly anyone was willing to put up with his insufferable vanity.

Johnson's account is clearly derived from sources close to Chamorro, if not from Chamorro himself, who regularly dramatizes himself as the brave victim of political persecution. The record demonstrates that Carlos Fernando Chamorro is himself a cynical political operator. He and his family ruthlessly exploit the media power of their virtual Press monopoly in Nicaragua to destroy their political enemies and to project and promote their own political cronies, like Chamorro's brother-in-law, electorally-nowhere Edmundo Jarquin of the Sandinista Renewal Movement.

Johnson's dismal journalism is all of a piece with the practice of European colleagues like Rory Carroll of the Guardian or John Carlin who writes often for Spain's El País or the British Independent. The reporting by these individuals is often so poor that if they worked for any kind of business where falsehoods and incompetence would cost their company money they'd most likely get their dismissal notice straight away. But they benefit from the nefarious amoral osmosis between corporate mass media, global high finance and government.

The irony of reports accusing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua of corruption, or of covering up the facts is that the writers themselves are key actors in exactly the kind of corrupt, mendacious culture they try to pin on their targets. Double-dealing and fakery are now prerequisites for promotion and enrichment in the media-high finance-governmental networks of consumer capitalist countries in North America and Europe. A direct link exists between the debauchment and fixing of those countries economic policies and the debasement of their news media. The pernicious effects on corporate news reporting are clear from Tim Johnson's McNews articles on Nicaragua.

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