The last year of President Arnoldo Alemán's term of office included passage of a law setting up an institute that journalists are forced to belong to and the discriminatory use of government advertising in the media.

A new law passed in March 2001 required journalists to have a diploma in journalism and belong to a "journalists' institute" if they wanted to work in the profession. The law was especially seen as a blow to press freedom because, at President Arnoldo Alemán's insistence, those who disobey it face a prison sentence. Alemán's last year in office was also marked by a new case of government discrimination in sharing out advertising among the media. In 2000, the newspaper La Prensa had been deprived of this source of revenue and in 2001 it was the turn of the daily El Nuevo Diario after it had denounced government corruption.

The accession to power of the new president, Enrique Bolaños, in early 2002 is not expected to end the influence of Alemán, who was constitutionally barred from re-election, because his Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) won both the presidency and control of parliament at the elections. He will probably become president of parliament and may be able to impose his will on his successor in a struggle for power between the two men. In November, an ally of Alemán presented a bill to parliament to curb the financial stake of private individuals in media outlets, foreshadowing another setback for press freedom.

A journalist attacked

Eloísa Ibarra, of the daily El Nuevo Diario was physically attacked on 1 August 2001 by President Arnoldo Alemán, who interrupted her while she was interviewing him about a famine in the country, grabbed her wrist and called her a "diehard Sandinista," referring to the opposition Sandinista National Liberation Front. Ibarra said a government aide told her, by way of explanation, that Alemán was drunk. A presidential spokesman denied this and accused El Nuevo Diario of waging "a hateful campaign to discredit" the president and several government members. Ibarra said she had been similarly attacked by Alemán in December 2000 after she had questioned him about his government's reported protection of a fugitive from Mexican justice.

Pressure and obstruction

Parliament unanimously adopted a law on 6 March 2001 setting up a "Journalists' Institute," after including an amendment proposed by President Arnoldo Alemán. The law requires all journalists to register as members of the institute and have a journalism diploma and proof of at least five years experience in the profession. The institute's official task is to see that journalists are "honest, responsible and truthful." The law was first passed on 13 December 2000, after which Alemán introduced amendments on 26 January 2001 providing for jail terms of up to six months for anyone who worked as a journalist without registering with the institute. Four media chiefs appealed against the law to the supreme court on 6 June, saying that forcing people to have a journalism diploma was contrary to freedom of expression as guaranteed by the national constitution.

On 29 June the daily El Nuevo Diario criticised the withholding of government advertising from the paper from mid-June, adding that several ministries and public bodies had been ordered to cancel subscriptions to the paper. Presidential spokeswoman Martha McCoy said the two steps were "a pure coincidence" and refused to say why they were taken. The paper said it was not being punished for any particular article but for its "general criticism and constant exposure of corruption." Editor-in-chief Francisco Chamorro said that as a result the paper had to reduce its purchase of newsprint and the number of pages. He accused President Alemán of wanting to "kill off" the paper. Figures supplied to RSF by the paper showed that the advertising cut-off was still in effect at the end of October.

Parliamentary deputy Eliseo Núñez, an ally of President Alemán, announced on 13 November that he would present a bill to parliament to prevent "monopolies in the media" by limiting any individual's financial stake in a media outlet to 20 per cent. This would affect the owners of El Nuevo Diario and La Prensa, held by two branches of the Chamorro family, each quite separate and ideologically very different. It would also threatened the Sacasa family, which owns the TV station Canal 2. The idea of the bill was dropped a few days later after strong press criticism and after President-elect Enrique Bolaños had expressed his disapproval of it.

It was known on 26 November that the minister of telecommunications presented a bill to parliament that would impose a 2.5 per cent turnover tax on private TV stations, to be collected by Telcor, the state body administering TV licences. The bill, seen by some as an attempt by President Alemán to take reprisals against Canal 2 for frequently accusing members of his government of corruption, was dropped a few days later. Several weeks before Alemán left office, the announcement and subsequent withdrawal of proposed laws that would curb press freedom was seen as a bid to sound out public opinion and assess the potential resistance of those targeted. Alemán said he would personally present a general bill concerning the media during the next parliament.


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