A new online reader on the Nicaragua crisis, Live from Nicaragua: Uprising or Coup?, was published in May 2019. Here is one of the articles, which focuses on the role played by social media and the alarming lack of balance both in Nicaragua’s corporate media and in the international press. It makes use of material that has appeared elsewhere in Two Worlds.
In a video clip, a young boy stands at a makeshift roadblock, play-acting something that he must have seen for real on a smartphone or a TV. He holds a toy gun to the head of his friend, who has just been ‘kidnapped’. Off camera, an adult asks, ‘What are you going to do?’ ‘We’ll kill him and leave him naked,’ replies the boy. The adults laugh. This scene from Nicaragua, filmed in one of the dozens of towns paralyzed by roadblocks in 2018, epitomizes the violence that occurred then and the role that social media played in promoting it.
Even five years ago, so few Nicaraguans had access to the internet that it had little influence on them, but in last year’s violence it was crucial. Social media shaped opinions among young people and mobilised them. While television is still important, newspapers (except for their websites) have been in decline in Nicaragua as elsewhere, with the most prestigious title, La Prensa, in financial difficulty. International media, little read in Nicaragua itself, have also had their vital role in shaping foreign perception of events.
This article looks in turn at the roles played by social media, Nicaragua’s corporate media and the international press in the Nicaraguan crisis of 2018.
Social media foment the crisis
Nominally, the protests that began on April 18 were in opposition to a series of quite modest reforms to the social security system. A vigorous disinformation campaign fooled large numbers of students and others into joining the protests by misrepresenting the detail of the government’s proposals. But the students leading these protests were soon joined by those with a much wider agenda of attempting to bring down the Ortega government. Rather than arguing about changes in pension arrangements, social media were quickly promoting regime change. Although similar moves had begun on a smaller scale earlier in April when a fire in the Indio Maíz reserve got out of control, they now escalated as protesters faced police and gunfire was exchanged.
It was perhaps the first example of mass manipulation via social media in Nicaragua since smartphones became widely available a few years ago. According to unofficial statistics, Nicaragua – like the neighbouring countries to its north – has relatively low internet usage. At the end of 2017, just 43% of the population had internet access. Nevertheless, by then some 2.5 million people were already Facebook users. Other statistics show that Facebook is by far Nicaragua’s most popular social media platform.
Facebook’s role in facilitating the 2018 protests has frequently been acknowledged. Less recognised is how important it was not just in organising the logistics of the protests but in creating and spreading the false news stories which fomented violence, hatred and persecution. The strength and pace of the protests were fuelled by a stream of real and false news, principally via Facebook. Of course, manipulation of social media by government supporters also took place, but it was usually more obvious and less sophisticated. Thousands of Facebook posts appeared, including paid advertisements, many originating outside Nicaragua. The New York Times reported on April 26 that young people ‘armed with cell phones and social media skills’ were challenging the government after ‘dozens’ of students had been killed.
What it did not say, of course, was where the students had acquired the skills not simply to make Facebook posts but to create and promote false news stories, building what was soon being called a ‘tsunami’ of media posts. The campaign had all the signs of having been planned months or even years in advance. All it had required was an event which could be misrepresented as a huge government blunder or an attack on people’s rights. The Indio Maíz fire had failed to trigger a response on the scale required; the social security reforms were to prove more incendiary.
The private sector body COSEP, the Superior Business Council, whose position (ironically) had been that the social security reforms had not been tough enough, saw the chance to defeat the government and urged students from private universities to take to the streets in protest. The immediate social media campaign described the government’s social security reforms as cutting benefits and increasing contributions, sparking more people to join the protests, with hashtags such as #OccupyINSS (INSS is the Nicaragua Institute of Social Security), #SOSINSS , and #Nicaraguaspring. COSEP’s more drastic alternative, which was to slash benefits, restrict their coverage and privatise health services, was conveniently forgotten.
The key messages quickly moved on from saying the government was suppressing democratic protest about cuts in services to falsely accusing it of causing dozens of student deaths and disappearances, many of which had not even occurred. After the first protest on April 18, there was a false report of a student protester killed by police which was shared all over social media. After the second day of protests on April 19th, there was a second such report of a student massacre (three people were actually killed, but they were not together and one was a police officer, one was killed in cross fire while returning home from work, and the other was a member of the Sandinista Youth organization who was shot while trying to protect the Tipitapa town hall from ‘protesters’ who were attempting to set it on fire).
The campaign included many more fake videos and false reports. Facebook posts reported that public hospitals were refusing to treat injured protesters. Fake videos appeared of ‘injured’ students being treated in universities and at the Catholic Cathedral of Managua. Any death was said to be that of a protester. Deaths which had occurred naturally were blamed on the police, e.g. that of William González Zúñiga who was reportedly shot in the UPOLI but had died at home, or that of Mario Alberto Medina who died months before the protests began. Killings by the opposition were also blamed on the police, as in the case of Roberto Carlos Garcia Paladino (also wrongly called a ‘student’). Marlon Josue Martinez was reported dead but was actually abroad; Karla Sotelo was the subject of a makeshift memorial while she was still alive; Marlon Jose Dávila, in Spain at the time, was also reported dead on Facebook. There were many similar cases. In this video people give testimony of false reporting of the deaths or disappearances of sons and daughters, used to inflame public opinion. And in this video a student, Veronica Gutiérrez, who initially supported the protests, explains how she quickly changed her mind as the protests became violent and began to demand regime change.
Its huge number of users, many with internet access wherever they were (again, ironically, partly thanks to the government’s free WiFi access in public spaces), gave Facebook the advantage of speed of dissemination. As we show below, while conventional media rely on journalists who are at least aware of normal professional standards, even if they often ignore them, Facebook users face no such limitations. False messages, accompanied by false images, were indistinguishable from true ones (e.g. ‘mass graves’ of murdered students, later shown to be illustrated with photos from Mexico; staged scenes of students in universities under attack, and people ‘confessing’ to doing the government’s dirty work).
If deaths could be falsified, then personal hatreds or disagreements could easily be turned into public ones. As the opposition became more desperate, social media took a turn for the worse, with instructions to track down and kill government sympathisers or officials who were labelled ‘toads’ (‘sapos’), leading to the victimising of government workers and supporters. Worse, there were many instances of kidnapping and torture, with the acts being filmed and distributed on social media to instil fear in communities. This was particularly effective in places where the opposition was strong, by forcing Sandinista supporters to hide or adopt a low profile.
Acts of violence or vandalism, such as burning down public buildings, could be blamed on Sandinista youths instead of the real perpetrators (who almost invariably had their faces covered anyway). Events were created or falsified for social media – not only the infamous cries for help from students ‘under fire’, but youths who had donned Sandinista t-shirts to raid supermarkets, others who had been given new clothing to create smart images of those manning the roadblocks, and so on. Opposition supporters even donned Sandinista t-shirts to disrupt their own demonstrations. A video promoting the opposition viewpoint in Masaya shows (at 9 minutes) how they had stolen police uniforms for their own use, and were threatening to kill the police and leave their bodies in the streets.
In some of the worst incidents, the first reports came via social media and they therefore framed the analysis of how the events occurred and who was responsible for them. Two stand out: a house fire in Managua on June 16, and the attack in Morrito on July 12.
On June 16, a group of hooded people set fire to a building in Managua using Molotov cocktails, causing seven deaths, including a two-year-old child and a five-month-old baby. A mattress store occupied the ground floor of the building while the owner and his family lived on the first floor. Neighbours said they saw hoodlums throw their cocktails at the building, and said some shooters prevented the family from escaping.
The incident was immediately labelled a revenge attack by government sympathisers or the police, supposedly because the family had refused to co-operate in allowing the roof of the house to be used by snipers. This was backed up by a video quickly posted on Facebook, which seemed to show the police arriving. It was later shown to have been taken on April 21, however, weeks before the barrio where the house is located was filled with opposition roadblocks. Opposition members made a Facebook post from the scene of the crime later the same day, accusing the government of ‘state terrorism’, rather revealing that they did indeed control the barrio.
Some of the surviving members of the family also accused the government, but one who was videoed doing so in a tweet later retracted his story. The tweet has since been removed. Nevertheless, the instant interpretations of events via social media were those which shaped the coverage of the fire both by Nicaragua’s corporate media and mainstream international news channels such as the BBC and The Guardian. Telesur, however, which has in general provided much more balanced coverage, uncovered a social media threat made against the murdered family from a few days before the fire.
The second incident was in Morrito, a small town on the eastern shore of Lake Nicaragua, almost a month later. On July 12 a ‘peaceful’ caravan of motor vehicles carrying protesters entered the town and attacked both the police station and the town hall. Four police officers were killed, along with a teacher who happened to be in the town hall. Around 200 armed protesters kidnapped the remaining police, took them away, beat them up and threatened to kill them, before later handing them over to the authorities in an exchange of prisoners. Its remote location meant that social media accounts of the events were first to appear. One version had the police firing on protesters, with the main newspapers reproducing from social media a picture of a dead demonstrator. But it was a fake, taken at a completely different protest in neighbouring Honduras. No protesters died or were injured in Morrito. Another version was that the police had an argument, in which one group tried to desert their posts and were shot by their fellow officers. The same website (Confidencial) gave a third explanation, that it was people in the town hall who began to fire on the police, not the demonstrators. A play-acted video clip from Facebook corroborated this story.
The irony in this is that one of the opposition’s most virulent international supporters, lone journalist Tim Rogers, claimed that through social media Nicaragua had discovered a vaccine for fake news. He seemed oblivious to the opposition’s false news machine, or, more likely, wanted to create a smokescreen behind which it could operate. Eventually, however, the proliferation of lies became too obvious to Nicaraguans. Scepticism grew about the messages that people saw on their phones and they began to place more trust in their own experiences or in the reputation which the government had enjoyed before the crisis began (e.g. typical police behaviour before April 2018, which was never to resort quickly to the use of firearms – unlike some self-congratulatory ‘democracies’). So one result of the extreme use and abuse of social media last year may now be a greater degree of healthy scepticism about the messages it conveys. Official announcements on government-supporting media now give advice on how to identify false news stories. Nevertheless, social media remains a potent force which, overall, the government has found it difficult to counteract.
Nicaragua’s corporate media are opposition mouthpieces
Nicaragua’s corporate media have often been happy to base news items on social media reports, even though they well know how unreliable they can be. An important reason is that there is limited commitment to objectivity and professional standards. Contrary to what is often said internationally, the government has no monopoly over the media and indeed the two main newspapers, La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario, the weekly newspaper Confidencial and various TV channels (such as Canal 10) and many websites are owned by or favour the opposition, and give diametrically different accounts from those owned by or favouring the government. This often leads to a particular event being ignored by one side of the media because it favours the line being pushed by the other side, and vice versa, such is the limited commitment to objectivity.
John Lee Anderson, writing in The New Yorker, sees La Prensa as the only newspaper opposing the government (ignoring the slightly less strident El Nuevo Diario). He also portrays Confidencial as a plucky, independent news source run by a small editorial team. These two, as he puts it, are ‘the leading voices of dissent and custodians of press freedom in Nicaragua’. Both these and some smaller media outlets are owned by the Chamorro family, and Anderson describes Confidencial’s Carlos Fernando Chamorro as following in the footsteps of his father, who was notoriously assassinated during the Somoza dictatorship. ‘Once again,’ Chamorro tells him in a discussion, ‘journalists are on the front lines.’
Chamorro is a self-appointed champion of investigative journalism, and indeed he is the only Nicaraguan member of the worldwide International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) who adhere to ‘the highest standards of fairness and accuracy.’ He was the subject of a eulogising piece from a fellow member, Sasha Chavkin, who also puts him at the head of the struggle for press freedom: ‘The media independence that exists now in Nicaragua was not a gift,’ Chamorro tells him. ‘It was won by journalists and the people.’ Chavkin’s account inevitably mirrors Confidencial in giving a completely distorted version of events in Nicaragua, in this case of the violence in Diriamba in July 2018. An offer by another Nicaraguan journalist, Jorge Capelan, to write a more balanced account of the same events was turned down by the ICIJ: Chavkin evidently trusts only Chamorro’s version. ‘We are now reaping the credibility we have sowed for 11 years,’ is Chamorro’s modest summary of his own achievements.
But are Carlos Fernando Chamorro and Confidencial really ‘independent’ or even ‘investigative’? As Tom Ricker has pointed out, ‘…Confidencial’s framework of taking on Ortega with “uncommon valor” is funded, at least in part, by the USA’s National Endowment for Democracy.’ In 2014, for example, a group called INVERMEDIA received a $60,000 grant in order to ‘foster independent digital media in Nicaragua’ and they received an additional $175,000 in subsequent years, to strengthen the organizational capacity of Confidencial. Funding to Chamorro by the US authorities dates back over a decade. Back in 2008, his non-profit organisation CINCO was funded by the military contractor Dyncorp via its subsidiary Casals and Associates, whom USAID subcontracted to run a programme called Camtransparencia, which was far from transparent. For Chamorro, ‘transparency’ or ‘independent journalism’ has nothing to do with balance or fairness, it is the freedom to build one’s image as an investigative, professional journalist while presenting a completely one-sided, anti-government view.
Here are three brief examples. In one of the regular interviews on his well-known programme Esta Semana (This Week, in September 2017), Chamorro was talking to World Bank representative Luis Constantino. He was trying to get him to agree that figures for poverty reduction in Nicaragua that the government had put out were not accurate; however, Constantino insisted that they were World Bank figures, and refused to back down. Eventually Chamorro had to change the subject. Then in May 2018 Confidencial published a lengthy ‘analysis’ of the early stages of the crisis prepared by CINCO, running to over 5,000 words. The so-called ‘analysis’ is written entirely from an opposition perspective. For example, there are numerous references to police ‘repression’, but none to killings or kidnappings of police officers, nor burning of police stations or police vehicles. Most recently, Confidencial gave space to a piece which depicts Ortega’s Nicaragua as in a similar category to Pol Pot’s Kampuchea or Hitler’s Third Reich, comparisons which are as absurd as they are disrespectful to real victims of state terror. As Louise Richards points out, Chamorro’s ‘…non-stop, brazen propaganda accuses President Daniel Ortega of attacking democracy while Chamorro himself uses Confidencial to destroy meaningful democratic process by constantly and deliberately misleading its readers.’
Confidencial is just one of a panoply of opposition media. Like the Chamorro-owned La Prensa it cultivates an air of seriousness and being part of the establishment. At the other extreme is the sensationalist 100% Noticias, which frequently promulgates outright lies. Its most vicious was on May 29, when its director Miguel Mora made the false claim that its TV studio was under attack by government sympathisers. He appealed for opposition activists to respond by attacking the Sandinista station, Nuevo Radio Ya. They did, setting it on fire, holding over 20 radio staff under siege and then shooting at firefighters and police attempting to control the fire and rescue those inside. Only the bravery of the rescue services and the radio station staff prevented more severe injury and loss of life. The building was destroyed. That story has never been told in Western media except by probably the only two genuinely independent US writers to visit Nicaragua during the failed coup attempt, Max Blumenthal and Dan Kovalik, who visited the scene of the crime and interviewed journalists traumatised by it. Not long afterwards, on June 9, it was the turn of the independent Radio Nicaragua to be destroyed by fire. Such is the opposition’s respect for the diversity of Nicaragua’s media.
The TV channel Canal 10, also notoriously anti-Sandinista, persists with the kinds of fraudulent images that have been used by the opposition from the start. A small opposition protest in March 2019, stopped by the police because it did not have permission and in which there were acts of violence as soon as the small numbers began to congregate, was the scene for Canal 10 reporters to depict themselves as ‘under fire’. As can be seen here (in the first of the clips), while they are lying on the ground, supposedly avoiding bullets, other people in the background are calmly sitting on steps, in no apparent danger. Of course, it was the film of the reporters ‘taking cover’ that was transmitted.
Early in 2019 Miguel Mora was arrested and the 100% Noticias channel closed down. His ‘criminalisation’ is now a cause for organisations such as Reporters without Frontiers. Carlos Fernando Chamorro has been ‘forced’ into exile and Confidencial now operates from Costa Rica. Acts of censorship have inevitably been decried by the international press, but with no references at all to the lies which such media promulgate and their deliberate provocation to violence.
International media adopts the ‘consensus narrative’
‘The world’s major media outlets have spoken, and the verdict is in: Daniel Ortega is on his way out. After years of cronyism, his dictatorial rule has met with mass popular resistance, a resistance Ortega’s government responded to with unprecedented force. All of this signals that Ortega is isolated and clueless, and that “the people” have had enough. It is only a matter of time before he and his wife go the way of former dictators, like Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu in Romania. No need to look further. The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker and others, have lent their editorial pages to “investigative” reporters, who have accepted and reproduced a consensus analysis concerning the political conflict in Nicaragua.’ (Quote from the article Manufacturing Dissent by Tom Ricker.)
The opposition may have failed to gain popular support in Nicaragua but they are the dominating influence in international news coverage. They created what The Guardian calls ‘a widespread and growing consensus within the international community that Nicaragua’s government is in fact largely responsible for the bloodshed.’ Before this article appeared last July, I had already suggested that a consensus narrative had been created about Nicaragua in the international press.
How was this done? One main reason is that the international press regularly rely on what is published in La Prensa, Confidencial, 100% Noticias and the rest, citing them as authoritative local sources (often while complaining, without apparent irony, that the government controls most of the Nicaraguan TV channels and news outlets). This of course helps ensure that the absence of any balance in local media is sustained in international coverage. Then they also report the body counts and other claims emitted by Nicaraguan ‘human rights’ organisations. These bodies, aligned with the opposition, are notoriously biased, and have often received US funding. Their claims are nevertheless quoted and amplified internationally by supposedly responsible organisations such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Repeated also by the international press, they are then cited unquestioningly by politicians. Thus the international media both create and strengthen the consensus narrative.
One feature of this is their exaggeration of the numbers of crisis-related deaths (with the term ‘massacre’ being used by The New York Times and others). Here they are following both social media and the local news sources just discussed, and repeating unquestioningly the exaggerated figures of deaths promulgated locally. For example, as early as the end of July, Bloomberg repeated the claim from local human rights groups that 448 people had been killed. Yet the National Assembly’s Truth Commission produced meticulously researched figures showing that the real total of crisis-related deaths after nine months was actually 253. The Truth Commission’s figures are rarely mentioned.
Nor do the liberal media challenge these exaggerated claims when they are used by the US to justify sanctions and other forms of intervention. Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, has labelled Nicaragua part of a troika of tyranny in Latin America, painting an extraordinary picture that bears no relation to reality. The Guardian’s Julian Borger, in a piece on Bolton’s speech, repeats the claim that ‘hundreds of people have been killed in a brutal crackdown’ by the Nicaraguan government, giving credence to the Trump official’s calumny.
Another common error is to portray all, or the vast majority, of deaths as being the result of government repression, making no distinction between fatalities among protesters and those among government supporters. This also reflects the line taken by both local and international ‘human rights’ organisations, despite objective evidence to the contrary. For example, in a report challenging Amnesty International’s biased assessments, Dismissing the Truth, a group including authors of this reader showed in detail how the crisis-related deaths in one part of Central Nicaragua were almost entirely caused by opposition violence at roadblocks. Violent attacks by the opposition are of course ignored or downplayed: the terrible incident in Morrito described above went entirely unmentioned in the international press. A Guardian reporter was even shown to have deliberately ignored opposition violence although he had photographed it, presumably because that would have complicated the simplistic picture being offered.
Another common feature of international reports is exaggeration of the numbers of students killed (the Truth Commission’s analysis shows that, of the total crisis-related deaths, just 15 were identifiably students). The refrain has been followed in hundreds of mainstream media reports. This reached a ridiculous pitch when even a reporter covering a boxing match squeezed in the comment that ‘thousands of students… have now been kidnapped, tortured and killed’ in Nicaragua.
The allegations of huge numbers of student deaths have brought significant coverage for opposition student leaders such as Lesther Aleman, Víctor Cuadra and Valeska Valle, who have featured in articles in The Guardian, El País and The New York Times. But students who witnessed the protests turning violent, such as Veronica Gutierrez and Leonel Morales, have been ignored by the same media (the former was forced into hiding and the latter narrowly survived an assassination attempt by opposition thugs).
International media also regularly repeat opposition claims that theirs is ‘a totally peaceful struggle’. They ignore the destruction by the opposition of radio stations, public buildings, schools and clinics, ambulances and police vehicles, Sandinista offices and many private homes. They ignore the hundreds of businesses which were ransacked. Police and Sandinista officials were kidnapped and tortured, in addition to those killed or permanently injured, but they are rarely mentioned. Shops, businesses and schools in several cities were closed down for as long as three months. Few of these other aspects of the crisis have been reported, or have been twisted so as to blame them on government supporters. In the case of The Guardian, when its reporter visited Masaya in June he was offered information on opposition violence and the destruction of the town hall, the secondary school and private homes: his article ignored this completely. Challenged on this, he refused to respond.
BBC coverage of Masaya also faithfully follows the same narrative. Yet you look at the photos and observe (a) the road has been ripped up to make the barricades and (b) those manning them have lethal weapons. In what other country would this be regarded as exercising a constitutional right to protest (which is what the protesters claim)? In what other country would the police not arrive in force to remove the barricades and arrest those holding the weapons?
International press have also followed the line that government arrests of those responsible for opposition violence mean they are suppressing protest and free speech. For example, the day after the Morrito attack, two of its organisers, Medardo Mairena and Pedro Mena, were apprehended at Managua airport while trying to flee the country. They were well known as the leaders of the roadblocks in that region of Nicaragua. At their trial, conclusive evidence from their own phones and testimony from undercover police agents proved their role in coordinating the Morrito attack. Their lengthy sentences reflected a range of crimes including murder, kidnappings, extortion, and preventing the passage of ambulances through the roadblocks, resulting in several deaths. Yet the sentences were ridiculed. Reuters’ report on Mairena was headed ‘Nicaraguan farmer who protested Ortega gets 216-year prison sentence ‘.The headline for the UK’s Daily Telegraph’s story called the sentence ‘ridiculous’. John Bolton was quick to pick this up too, tweeting that ‘The Ortega regime has sentenced three farm leaders to 550 years in prison’.
These men, who in practice will serve a maximum of 30 years each for what in every country would be regarded as very serious crimes, are now included in a long list of what the opposition calls ‘political prisoners’, a description echoed by The New York Times and others. Government justifications for the sentences are dismissed as having no credibility, yet none of the mainstream media carry out their own investigation of the crimes to reach an impartial view. In the Morrito case, it took independent journalists Dick and Miriam Emanuelsson to make such an investigation, several months after the incident, explaining clearly how the attack happened and how it was that the opposition used overwhelming force to surprise and overcome Morrito’s small squad of police.
The biases, gaps and errors in media reports have been pointed out many times, specifically in a sign-on letter to the Guardian (that it refused to publish), and also by a small number of truly progressive media outlets (in a video by Redfish, for example). The US organisation FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) looked in detail at the systematic bias in 45 bulletins issued by Reuters. While there are plentiful videos, interviews or commentaries featuring ordinary Nicaraguans who have suffered from the crisis, including torture victims, women describing how they were threatened at the barricades, people denouncing priests as coup-mongers and individual campesinos (peasant farmers) describing how their country was being destroyed, these voices are largely ignored or dismissed.
Those defending the Sandinista government have found it difficult or impossible to get a proper hearing. The widely known, left-wing US news channel, Democracy Now, hosted a debate on Nicaragua in July 2018. It featured Camilo Mejia, an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, originally from Nicaragua, son of world-renowned musician, Carlos Mejia Godoy, who drew attention to opposition violence, arguing that an attempted coup had taken place. But the programme used footage about protesters’ deaths without balancing it with the contrary evidence that Mejia supplied beforehand. The presenters made it clear that they gave more credence to his opponent in the debate, Julio Martinez Ellsberg, who is an active supporter of the opposition. Democracy Now never responded to an open letter calling for more balanced coverage of Nicaragua. Perhaps to avoid further controversy, it has since never covered Nicaragua despite the obvious interest on the US left. Mejia later experienced the opposition’s intolerance of anyone daring to challenge their propaganda, which has spread from Nicaragua to the US and Europe via the organisation SOSNicaragua. Its members followed him to meetings in early August in San Francisco and elsewhere, attempting to shout him down.
Others who have tried to tell these untold stories have also been attacked. When the situation in Nicaragua became risky and I started to write under a pseudonym, I was deliberately outed by a website I sent an article to, and then ‘investigated’ by a blogger called Charles Davis who seems to specialise in ad hominem attacks. Davis also accused the website Tortilla con Sal of being ‘a Nicaraguan government-financed news outlet’: yet it is completely independent.
One set of incidents in particular stands out as showing the duplicity of the international media and the way that those who expose it are treated. On 7 September, the freelance writer Carl David Goette-Luciak published an article in The Guardian, falsely claiming that the country had been brought to a virtual halt by a general strike called by the anti-government Civic Alliance. This was his third article on Nicaragua for the newspaper, and he had already written another for the Washington Post. His co-author was Caroline Houck, a staff correspondent for the website Defense One, which leverages ad revenue from the arms industry to ‘provide news, analysis and ideas for national security leaders and stakeholders.’ Goette-Luciak’s biased reports attracted the attention of Sandinista sympathisers on social media, who began to denounce his coverage as promoting the opposition line. He was immediately supported by the Committee to Protect Journalists, who called for the ‘online harassment’ to be investigated. Then, on September 26, the writer Max Blumenthal showed in detail that Goette-Luciak was a long-term affiliate of the opposition and an active proponent of regime change.
A few days later, Goette-Luciak was arrested in Managua and deported, for not having the correct accreditation to work as a journalist – a requirement for a foreign reporter to enter many countries, notably the United States. The Guardian protested, blaming ‘the blogger’ Max Blumenthal for his arrest. Both he and the website The Canary (who had republished the original story from Mintpress) were labelled by journalist Adam Barnett as a mouthpiece for Ortega, while BuzzFeed accused them of being part of an ‘online mob’ (and later had to retract its accusations about Blumenthal).
But then a remarkable thing happened. A former friend of Goette-Luciak contacted Blumenthal and confirmed that he had been with him in Nicaragua, when both had been pursuing what was evidently a reckless and arrogant attempt by two outsiders to assist in bringing about the end of the Ortega government. The friend, Wyat Reed, also wrote to The Guardian, but was ignored. Blumenthal published a second story in The Canary, detailing Reed’s claims. Everything then when quiet – no reply from The Guardian, no further complaints about Blumenthal, and eventually Goette-Luciak’s name being dropped by The Guardian from its list of contributors, although his articles are still on its website.
As a result of all the opposition’s mistakes, and of the government’s concerted action to regain control, Nicaragua’s real situation has shifted markedly in the few weeks following mid-July 2018. But international commentators failed to keep up. The New York Times, Huffington Post, Guardian and other media continued to talk about the tyranny, or the mounting political violence, or (in the case of Huffpost) even the rise of fascism in Nicaragua. In Open Democracy, José Zepeda claimed that ‘the majority of the Nicaraguan people have turned their backs on [Ortega].’ In Canada, the Ottawa Citizen still talked about Nicaragua imploding. But most of these correspondents were not in the country. In practice the violence quickly slowed almost to a halt, Nicaraguan cities were cleared of barricades and normal life was resumed. The prevailing feeling was one of relief, and better-informed commentators aware of events on the ground began to conclude that the attempted coup had failed.
Since mid-2018, the Ortega government has again been promoting and developing its social investment programmes, building on its achievements in the decade since it returned to power. The international media continue to ignore or denigrate Nicaragua’s revolutionary achievements, but this should come as no surprise. In the 1980s, when progressive opinion in the US and Europe endorsed the revolution’s social programmes and Oxfam was able to say that they represented ‘the threat of a good example’ (to quote one of its publications at the time), historian Mark Curtis examined over 500 articles about Nicaragua in the UK’s newspapers. He found only one story that discussed the early achievements of the revolution in reducing poverty, illiteracy, hunger and disease. Worse, reports by FAIR show how, during the same period in the 1980s, the US media were complicit in repeating the messages and lies put out by the US government attacking the Sandinistas and supporting the ‘Contra’ war. Stephen Kinzer, then the NYT’s Managua correspondent, said that the media were encouraged to make favourable reports about the ‘pressure’ being put on the Sandinistas, when ‘the reality of that pressure is babies with their arms blown off.’
Among the lies which Washington perpetrated was that Sandinistas would not submit to free elections and that they were heavily involved in drug trafficking. A topical reminder of the use of outright lies to support the US case for armed intervention comes from Venezuela, where The Intercept showed very recently how the media were complicit in repeating the US’s false news stories that its aid shipments were being destroyed at the border by Venezuelan troops. For once, the NYT exposed the lie, although without mentioning that they were using an original story from Max Blumenthal who had reported the lie on the day it happened (the same Blumenthal castigated by mainstream media for exposing the lies of the Guardian’s Managua correspondent – see above). But this hasn’t stopped The New York Times from endorsing the US government’s attempted overthrow of the Venezuelan government. Doing so fits a pattern of NYT support for US government-led coups in Latin America that goes back more than half a century.
None of those who have attempted more balanced coverage of the Nicaraguan crisis, or have criticised the mainstream media, are uncritical supporters of the Ortega government. We simply share the view that a balanced appraisal of the Nicaraguan crisis is essential, taking account of the views of all Nicaraguans, not just opposition supporters. In the wider Latin American context, our failure to draw proper lessons from events in Nicaragua is already playing into the hands of John Bolton and his ilk. Trump and his hangers-on are only too happy to accept what the media tells them if it suits their agenda of cleansing the continent of progressive politics. They can expect virulent support in social media and will be applauded by Nicaragua’s right wing news channels. But the implicit or even at times explicit support they receive from international liberal media, human rights organisations and ‘progressive’ commentators is an insult to the majority of ordinary Nicaraguans, who only want to preserve and build on the gains of their revolution.