Despite the violent protests of a year ago, Managua has largely returned to normal. While never the most attractive capital city in Latin America, it remains one of the safest. There are more police on the streets than there were before last year’s violence, but most people find that reassuring. A recent opinion poll shows that the government maintains close to 60% support and that 85% of Nicaraguans would oppose any return to last year’s protests. Nevertheless, if you buy a newspaper, you’ll find it full of anti-government rhetoric. If you watch TV news, there’s a good chance you’ll find the same. According to the world-wide Committee to Protect Journalists, opposition media are in a stronger position than they were before the crisis.
But this is far from the picture painted in the UK by the Channel 4 series ‘Unreported World’.
In a programme from Nicaragua called Censored, its presenter Sahar Zand skulks around Managua by taxi, hiding from mysterious pursuers and from the police. She claims it’s unsafe for her to travel in the same car as local reporters, and she keeps telling her photographer to hide their cameras. Journalists in Nicaragua, she says, risk being deported or killed. She finds police at the roadside ‘unsettling’. Avoiding walking in the streets, she says at one point that ‘Nicaragua may be a nation at war’.
There is a reason for this odd behaviour. Zand seems not to have come to Nicaragua to listen to different political opinions, she’s evidently there to endorse the image of the country presented by the anti-government media. Of the half dozen major opposition newspapers and TV channels, Zand picks three: La Prensa (a right-wing newspaper) and Canal 10 and 100%Noticias, TV news channels. The whole programme is devoted to and steered by these opposition sources; no one speaks up for the government or challenges the picture that Censored presents.
The team from La Prensa take her to the Divine Mercy church, scene of a siege during the violence a year ago. They show her bullet holes, evidence that the ‘students’ who had sheltered there had come under fire from government forces. What they don’t explain is that the adjoining university, the UNAN, was at that time completely controlled by armed protesters. They had burned down parts of it and a child development centre was completely destroyed. The day before the armed gangs retreated to the church, they had launched a fusillade against a passing group of government supporters, injuring and hospitalising ten of them. It was hardly surprising that they were being sought by the police, given the weapons they were using (and the violence to which some of them confessed afterwards). Hundreds of weapons were recovered by police when the university was retaken.
Unreported World uses a video clip of a student at the UNAN, supposedly sheltering from gunfire last year, appealing to her mother to forgive her for getting involved in the protests. This clip was shared worldwide, but it was quickly shown to be play-acting, as any examination of media stories about it would have revealed. Another video, made during the same incident, shows a student ‘saying goodbye’ to his mother while ‘under fire’, yet others stand around casually, apparently indifferent to the bullets.
Sahar Zand moves on, to talk about 100%Noticias, whose director Miguel Mora is in prison on charges of inciting violence. The charges are treated as ridiculous, yet stem from real events. On May 29 last year, Mora made the false claim on air that his 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 prevented severe loss of life. The building was destroyed. Not long afterwards, on June 9, it was the turn of the independent Radio Nicaragua to be set on fire: such is the opposition’s respect for the diversity of Nicaragua’s media. These incidents and other attacks on government-supporting media and journalists go unmentioned by Unreported World.
Zand’s final port of call is Canal 10 (Channel 10), and its reporter Valeska Rivera. She says she is in constant fear of being killed, and is seen assuring her daughter that she will come home every night. In fact just two reporters have been killed as a result of the protests, both by opposition forces: one was Angel Gahona, shot by protesters in Bluefields; the other was Eduardo Spiegler, killed in Managua when he was filming youths demolishing one of the brightly lit ‘trees of life’ that were attacked as government symbols.
Canal 10 is also well-known for its false news stories. In March, Valeska Rivera was reporting from an opposition demonstration when she suddenly threw herself to the ground, taking shelter from a police ‘attack’. The incident was filmed by a bystander, and the clip shows that while Rivera and her colleague are lying prone, others stand nearby or sit on steps in the background, unaware of the ‘gunfire’. She went on to reportthat she had faced not only bullets but contact bombs. Despite this repression, as Zand points out, Canal 10 still ‘manages’ to broadcast three news bulletins per day, every day.
There is an irony in Censored being part of a series called ‘Unreported World’. Rather than tell a story that is genuinely unreported, Sahar Zand repeats the messages already purveyed by the BBC, the Guardian, New York Times, and the rest. She could have challenged the distorted coverage of Nicaragua found in most of the international media. As the results of recent polls have shown, she would have been reflecting the opinions of most Nicaraguans. It’s a pity that when Sahar Zand was in Managua she didn’t get out more.
For more on this topic, see the media chapter of the online reader on the Nicaragua crisis, Live from Nicaragua: Uprising or Coup?, published in May 2019.
A fuller summary of the events at the UNAN, with links to evidence ignored by the programme, is given in pp.33-37 of the report Dismissing the Truth which is available here.
John Perry lives in Masaya, Nicaragua where he works on UK housing and migration issues and writes about those and other topics covered in this blog.