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Media feel government pressure


PRESIDENT Bush likes to remind the foreign policy establishment that his ideas are good for business. He believes, as he argued on behalf of China's inclusion in the World Trade Organization, that "free trade supports and sustains freedom in all its forms."

This simple sloganeering often sells many on the idea that commerce creates democracy. The intertwining of these concepts is an effective way to silence critics of policies that have little to do with democracy but a lot to do with economic power. Consider the legacy of Bush's predecessors - his father and President Ronald Reagan - in Central America. By supporting wars against communists during the 1980s, the United States guaranteed open markets in the region.

But the track record for democracy in Central America is thin. An example is the precarious nature of free speech in the region. Threats aimed at media outlets in El Salvador and Nicaragua this year reveal the truth underneath the label of freedom. For the past decade, much of the politics of Central America has developed below the radar of the American public. We last tuned into this area when the locus of Reagan-era foreign policy was located somewhere between Managua and San Salvador.

In Managua, the communist-inspired Sandinistas were in power, fighting right-wing rebels financed from Washington. In San Salvador, a conservative oligarchy employed death squads and brutal free-fire zones, with the tacit blessing of Washington, as they fought communist guerrillas.

With the end of the Cold War, Central America's civil wars ended too. The leftist forces in El Salvador signed a treaty and became a political party. In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas (also known as the FSLN) lost an election and peacefully handed over power. Today, both countries are governed by conservative governments friendly to business. To the casual observer, these governments have almost covered over all the scars of the past. There is almost no inkling of more than a decade of turmoil that preceded the peace. Almost.

Last month in Nicaragua, President Arnoldo Aleman tried discreetly to pressure the country's most popular newspaper by ordering his government to cut all ties with the publication.

Aleman's orders went so far as to ban the mention of the newspaper, El Nuevo Diario from the airwaves of Nicaragua's public television network.

However, the paper began a campaign to notify readers about the government's order and its implications. Aleman's order was significant because the Nicaraguan government is the largest advertiser in the country. By pulling its advertising from El Nuevo Diario, the government was sending a clear economic message about its displeasure.

So much for free markets supporting all forms of freedom.

El Nuevo Diario is similar to supermarket tabloids in the United States, filled with reports of UFOs, vampires and other sensational stories. But notably the newspaper has also crusaded against nepotism, cronyism, ineptitude, and corruption in Aleman's government.

Once Aleman's boycott was exposed, the government backpedaled and said the advertising reduction was because government revenue and taxes were low. However, the government's advertising remains strong in other publications, including La Noticia, a paper endorsed by the president.

Despite the fact that less than 1 percent of Nicaraguans who read newspapers buy La Noticia, at times the Aleman government has placed as much as 25 percent of its national advertising budget with the tiny newspaper.

"Situations like this do nothing to guarantee democracy," said Guillermo Morales, the former president of the Association of Nicaraguan Journalists.

But this is the rule, not the exception, in Nicaragua, where the media have fought various types of censorship for most of the country's history. This isn't even the first time Aleman has attempted to muzzle the media. After he came to office in 1997, Aleman closed the country's public television network until he could fire anyone connected to the Sandinistas. At the beginning of his term, he also used an advertising boycott to pressure media outlets to back his policies. El Nuevo Diario, which often backs the Sandinistas, was one of the targets of the first boycott. The government had only resumed advertising in the paper in November.

Other media outlets were not so lucky. The legendary Sandinista newspaper Barricada closed - killed by Aleman's boycott. The Sandinistas also were forced to sell their television network under the economic pressure.

With elections in November and former President Daniel Ortega of the Sandinistas leading in the polls, Aleman's media policies look distinctly like measures to subvert free expression and contain the resurgent popularity of the Sandinistas.

In El Salvador, President Francisco Flores, the leader of the conservative party that has ruled the country for the past 12 years, has also used a boycott to pressure his government's chief critic, television network TV12.

Earlier this year, a series of earthquakes ravaged El Salvador, leaving a million people homeless. After the quakes, TV12 began reporting about ineptitude and favoritism in the handling of disaster relief. Flores took exception to TV12's reporting.

This was not the first time the network has run afoul of the powerful. During the civil war, TV12 boldly ran interviews with guerrilla leaders, and journalists from the network faced death threats.

During the war, the government initiated an advertising boycott of the network to drive it off the air. Because the Salvadoran government is the country's largest advertiser, the boycott had a major effect. In the mid-1990s, TV12's owner, Jorge Zedan, sold controlling interest of the network to Mexico's TV Azteca to compensate for his financial losses.

Zedan, who still manages the network, again finds himself embroiled in a controversy that resulted from his network's aggressive reporting. As before, Zedan is defending the network's controversial anchor Mauricio Funes and the network's other journalists.

Funes' program Hechos, which means "facts" in English, had run stories about protests concerning earthquake relief. It was the only major media outlet to do so. Soon, the anchor was fielding a phone call from Ricardo Salinas Pliego, the Mexican owner of the network, who told him to be careful about his reporting concerning the quakes.

Salinas was upset, Funes says, because Mexico's President Vicente Fox had questioned the critical stories. To the Salvadoran anchorman, the message was clear: Back off. Funes says he was told the complaints about TV12's reporting originated in the office of Flores. As Funes tells it, when Flores and Fox were discussing disaster relief, Flores asked Fox to intervene with TV12 and its Mexican owners.

For a while, Salinas and TV Azteca seriously considered canceling the news programs on their Salvadoran subsidiary and replacing them with Mexican soap operas. The reason: The Salvadoran government has reinstituted an advertising boycott against the network. Loyal corporate advertisers have followed the government's example and canceled ads.

Flores denies he ever spoke to Fox about TV12. And Flores' spokesman denies there is a boycott of TV12, although documents from the network clearly show a loss of government advertising recently.

These may seem like curious media flaps in distant countries, but they speak directly about the level of freedom today in Central America. This is another reason to note that although the United States has turned its attention to other parts of the world, our nation cannot afford to buy the notion that democracy is now in place and flourishing south of our borders.

Finally, this brings into sharper definition the feelings toward free expression of leaders of supposedly democratic nations like presidents Aleman, Flores and yes, even Fox. These incidents show the limits of understanding about the importance of free speech in democratic systems. What these leaders need to remember is that free speech is important to balance their powers. That's what democracy is really all about.

Rick Rockwell is a co-author of the soon-to-be published book, "Media Power in Central America" (University of Illinois Press). Kristin Neubauer is a Fulbright Foundation research fellow working in Central America.

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