Giving Journalists the Silent Treatment

Why ignoring the media is a serious threat to press freedom.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega 

Journalists working in repressive countries are routinely jailed, attacked, and killed. So what’s the big deal if reporters are ignored?

In fact, the “silent treatment” is an emerging threat to press freedom, one that is insidious and dangerous.

I saw this firsthand in April when I visited Nicaragua as part of a delegation from the Committee To Protect Journalists. While President Daniel Ortega is everywhere in Nicaragua—his smiling visage adorns pink billboards, and he appears nightly on television delivering long speeches—he is invisible in the private media. He has yet to hold an official press conference or give an extended interview to a Nicaraguan journalist.

Why isn’t Ortega talking to the media? Because he doesn’t need to.

Nicaragua’s private media outlets are owned and run by the country’s traditional elites and have a center-right orientation. In normal circumstances, Ortega and his Sandinistas would need to reach out to some voters from this segment of the electorate to win a majority and would therefore have a vested interest in engaging with critics in the press. But Ortega engineered changes to Nicaragua’s electoral law that allowed him to claim the presidency in 2006 with only 38 percent of the vote. This means he can safely dismiss the segment of public opinion represented by the private media.

Ortega’s political strategy is to rally the Sandinista base, which he achieves by using heated rhetoric to provoke conflict with his political opponents, including those in the private media. He relies on outlets run by the Sandinista Party and his own family to communicate directly with his supporters. These outlets never talk to Ortega directly. As Dennis Schwartz, the director of a Sandinista radio station Nueva Radio Ya explained to us: “We broadcast his public events. We don’t feel a need to interview Ortega.”

Nicaragua is perhaps the clearest example of this global trend. Leaders around the world are ignoring critical media outlets that once held them to account. This is possible partly because the media themselves are weakened politically and economically. Traditional outlets, particularly newspapers, often reach a smaller percentage of the population and, because of the rise of the Internet, no longer shape public opinion in the way they once did. Often they are economically diminished—and not as able to push back effectively against government pressure.

Ignoring the press is a tactic that spans the ideological spectrum and is employed in countries both repressive and democratic. During a discussion on war and propaganda I attended recently, two panelists spoke about the media management strategies during the recent military conflicts in Sri Lanka and Gaza. Both the Sri Lankan and Israeli governments simply blocked media access to the war zones, accepting the inevitable criticism they received in international circles. While the media in Israel are vigorous and often critical, they broadly supported the Gaza military incursion in January. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhala-language radio network that reaches most of the population lined up behind the military operation against Tamil separatists. Assured of favorable domestic media, both countries simply refused to engage their critics outside the country.

In Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have used punitive tax laws and government-orchestrated corporate takeovers to bring once-critical broadcasters under Kremlin control. These networks’ fawning coverage has been so successful in building support for the Putin-Medvedev political project that they can now safely ignore the handful of remaining critical media outlets whose reach is largely confined to elite groups in Moscow.

In Latin America, Colombia’s conservative President Álvaro Uribe and Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chávez both rely on sympathetic media outlets to communicate directly with their supporters while attacking their critics. (Uribe described the country’s top investigative reporter as a coward, a liar, a swine, and a professional slanderer.)

As the Kremlin has done, Chávez is bringing the broadcast media under state control, and his latest target being the last remaining critical broadcaster, Globovisión. The print media in Venezuela remain stridently critical of Chávez, but they represent a segment of the population whose support Chávez does not need. As in Nicaragua, reporters from private media outlets are often excluded from government events.

Even in Iran, where international reporting has focused on new media and social networking sites as powerful tools for political organizing, the reality is that most Iranians get their information from traditional newspapers and TV and radio stations loyal to the conservative government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society noted in a recent blog post, photos and videos taken on the streets of Tehran may be getting out to the world, but the government has succeeded in limiting their distribution in Iran, at least outside the Tehran elite. Still, the post-election tumult is surely a reminder to repressive leaders around the world of what can happen when they lose control of the information agenda.

The ability of political leaders to bypass the independent media also poses new challenges to human rights groups and other international organizations, something I saw during my visit to Nicaragua. Human rights groups have traditionally worked by documenting abuses and bringing them to the attention of institutions that shape perceptions, including the media.

But what do you do when the government simply refuses to engage? While in Nicaragua, we tried repeatedly to arrange a meeting with President Ortega to raise our concerns about his government’s hostility toward critical media. The only government official who would receive us was human rights ombudsman Omar Cabezas, a former Sandinista fighter and author of the memoir Fire on the Mountain. Cabezas is hugely charismatic, and his impersonation of former President Violeta Chamorro had us in stitches. But when we asked him why the government wouldn’t talk to us, he was dead serious. “We establish our own agenda,” he said. “We do not respond to pressure from the international community, foreign governments, or the press. We talk when we want, and we say what we want.”

What is most disturbing about this pinched view is that Cabezas has a point. As Ortega’s cynical media strategy becomes entrenched in Nicaragua, the media themselves, weakened economically and less essential politically, have lost their ability to demand access. For Ortega, the media have become dispensable. Worse, what we see today in Nicaragua appears to be the harbinger of a broader trend, spreading through Latin America and around the world.