COLOR IT UNDEMOCRATIC Nicaragua Election Coverage

September 25, 2007

"Election Plan in Nicaragua is Cri- ticized by Opposition" The New York Times January 18, 1984 "Going Through the Motions in Nica- ragua" The New York Times November 4, 1984 These Times headlines, opening and closing the pre-election period, capture the essence of the news frames for the November 4 Nicara- guan elections. Would the "key" op- position group regard the elections as sufficiently fair, or call a boycott? When it did finally boycott, the elec- tion became for the media a ho-hum affair with the Sandinistas dominating "smaller" parties and voters "going through the motions" of showing up to vote. In media eyes, "many" voted under pressure or, unable to vote for favored abstaining candidates, un- ethusiastically made another choice. The themes of this coverage stand in sharp contrast to news frames of the 1982 Salvadorean election. Then, lead headlines trumpeted large turn- outs of animated voters braving dan- gers to excercise their newly found democratic rights. The press found vigorous, though mudslinging, cam- paigns. Comments from U.S. observ- ers, Salvadorean politicians, U.S. government officials and the reporters themselves characterized the Salvado- rean election as the most fair and hon- est in the country's history, establish- ing a "fledgling" democracy. All agreed the elections were a resound- ing defeat for the boycotting Left. The Salvadorean civilian opposi- tion boycotting the election-the FDR-was barely mentioned; its reasons for not participating went un- reviewed. The press did not allow abstention to mar the democratic lustre of the electoral process. The most telling difference between the two elections' treatment is the number of articles and television seg- ments. For El Salvador, three major dailies (The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post) ran 34 front-page stories over seven days, with a total of five front-page stories and two interior stories the day after the election. On election day and the day after, the three networks broadcast segments averaging eight minutes out of the 22-minute pro- Wooden boxes assured secrecy. Jack Spence, a political science pro- fessor at the University of Mas- sachusetts-Boston, has contributed articles on U.S. media coverage of Central America to Columbia Jour- nalism Review, Socialist Review and Report on the Americas. He was in Nicaragua for 10 days to observe the election. "grams. By contrast, on Nicaragua's elec- tion day the Sunday Times ran a page- 20 story on U.S. observers and the "going through the motions" piece in the "Week in Review" section. The day after the election, the Times pub- lished two page-20 stories. The Post ran a page-one story, and The Globe's page-one article was below the fold. Neither got lead headlines. Television coverage on the network evening news shows was even scan- tier. CBS devoted two minutes to the election on Sunday. Arturo Cruz, the boycotting candidate who had travel- led to Nicaragua from his home in Washington for election day, received prominent attention. ABC broadcast a 2:20-minute story on Monday. NBC limited its coverage to a Saturday eve- ning pre-election piece. Football elim- inated NBC's Sunday evening broad- cast. Painted in Democratic Colors Other recent elections in Latin America have not received as much coverage as El Salvador's in 1982, but, unlike Nicaragua's, were painted in democratic colors. For Uruguay's presidential election, the press redis- covered its old pre-Tupamaro label- "the Switzerland of Latin Ameri- ca"-despite the fact that one popu- lar, would-be candidate was in jail and another was banned from par- ticipating. The Times' pre-election piece (January 14) on Brazil led with "Brazil will take an important step to- ward the return to full democracy Tuesday .... "- despite the mili- tary's earlier refusal to permit a direct election in favor of the electoral col- lege. The Nicaraguan election was di- rect, by popular vote. Yet despite open voting procedures and the lack of campaign violence common in Latin American, the media never portrayed Nicaragua's elections in democratic terms. Media emphasis on the accusations of the boycotting opposition, the Nicaraguan Democratic Coordinator (CDN or Co- ordinadora), continuously cast doubt on the election's fairness. These ac- cusations were mentioned in virtually every election story from January 1984 to mid-January 1985. The im- REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 10S- - - - --..-- ... . I plicit justification for this focus on the CDN was that it was, in the press' characterization, the only significant opposition. The other six opposition parties were apparently deemed too weak and divided to merit much atten- tion. In some 130 articles reviewed from six major dailies (Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Globe, Post and Times, with a complete 11-month sample from the last three) and the three major news- weeklies, one has to search hard for any mention of the other parties until election day. There are two excep- tions to this rule of non-coverage. One is a feature on the Nicaraguan Socialist Party leader Domingo Sin- chez Salgado by Stephen Kinzer in The Times (October 7). The other proves the rule. When the Indepen- dent Liberal Party (PLI) or one wing of it, decided two weeks before the election to boycott, it at last became a respectable party headed by a veteran leader-and good copy. The press ignored the fascinating policy of studied ambiguity pursued by PLI presidential candidate Virgilio Godoy. He delayed ten days before notifying the Election Council of the party's decision to drop out of the race. The Council ruled it was three days too late for an entire party to pull out, but that individual candidates could formally withdraw. Godoy- Minister of Labor until last March- never submitted his formal with- drawal. But as the media represented it, the PLI stood with the other boycotters. The press provided no evidence to support its characterization of the CDN as the only significant opposi- tion. Indeed, facts found within the coverage suggest that it was no stronger or more popular than other opposition parties. Scattered press ac- counts estimated various CDN rally crowds ranging from 900 to 50. By contrast, the Sandinistas' closing campaign rally in Managua drew, by conservative estimate, 150,000 to 200,000. In Nicaragua, many believe the PLI to be the strongest and largest opposi- tion political party. If one makes the generous assumption that half of those who did not vote stayed home because 11 ICDN candidate Arturo Cruz was not running (leaving only 12% of the elec- torate too tired, apathetic, cynical or busy to vote), an election with Cruz would have garnered the CDN just slightly more votes than the third place finisher, or about 12% of the vote. Unwarranted Accusations The CDN also complained that the Sandinistas were pressuring people to vote, and to vote Sandinista, through pro-Sandinista block committees-- which allegedly threatened to with- hold much valued ration cards. The press quoted several voters saying they felt general pressure to vote, but these charges were not accompanied by direct evidence of voter intimida- tion or that this was official policy. The U.S. media reiterated CDN charges that Sandinista "mobs" had broken up their rallies. A politically diverse group of U.S. observers from the Latin American Studies Associa- tion concluded that such accusations were exaggerated. They concluded there were threats of violence and harassment at four pre-campaign CDN rallies, but also heard testimony that the police had acted to maintain order. In one case they quoted a U.S. witness who said that the disturbance was spontaneous. In addition, they found evidence, unreported in the U.S. press, of CDN-instigated vio- lence at a small pro-Sandinista rally. The only serious injury cited was a Sandinista who had been stabbed at a rally. The Electoral Council sustained charges of group violence, or threa- tened violence, in five of the eight cases brought to it by opposition par- ties. There were 250 officially re- ported rallies. Almost all complaints of irregularities came to the Council in the opening weeks of the campaign. The press focus on the CDN char- ges continued well into the three- month campaign, despite a Washing- ton Post story (July 30) quoting CDN leaders who said they had never seri- ously considered participating, but only wanted to embarrass the San- dinistas. The focus on the CDN's charges overshadowed the vigorous cam- paigns being waged by the other par- ties, and the actual election proce- dure. The implication was that there was no meaningful democratic exer- cise. The Reagan Administration was quoted extensively saying the election was a Soviet-style sham. The New York Times editorialized (November 7) that "Only the naive believed that [the] election was democratic or legit- imizing proof of the Sandinistas' popularity." La Prensa Refuses Ads Seen differently, the campaign was not just a chance for the Sandinistas to improve their international image. It provided increased political space and resources to the opposition parties. All parties took the opportunity to blame the incumbant Sandinistas for all that was wrong. Each party could amplify its campaign voice with cof- fers of 9 million c6rdobas (75 c6r- dobas would buy a 30-second radio spot; 35,000 would suffice for 15 mi- nutes on TV). A few press accounts mentioned, but minimized, the equal guarantees of two 15-minute TV slots and 45 mi- nutes on state radio per week. Parties could purchase as much private radio and newspaper space as they wanted. Ironically, the Democratic Conserva- tive Party charged the anti-Sandinista daily, La Prensa, with censorship. (La Prensa had long complained of being censored by the government.) In keeping with its hardhitting support of the CDN, the paper refused to take campaign ads from participating par- ties. Stephen Kinzer reported in The New York Times that the Sandinistas offered to expand each party's initial electoral chest by 5 million c6rdobas in a secret, mid-campaign deal. In ex- change, the parties reportedly agreed to withhold criticism of forced mili- tary recruitment. Yet the parties were heard to criticize the draft again be- fore the end of the campaign. Kinzer likened this to the deals Somoza made to assure a fig-leaf op- position. The former dictator would divide up the legislature, lower courts and other offices with the opoposition Conservatives. In these take-it-or- leave-it pre-election "offers," the So- moza Liberals always came out ahead, and other opposition parties were squeezed out. In 1984, the results of the election were not predetermined by fraud, and the entire electoral framework was geared toward including, not exclud- ing, parties. The system of propor- tional representation virtually guaran- teed that even the smallest parties would get one or two seats in the 96- member Constituent Assembly. High Turnout Not Convincing A survey of post-election round-ups leaves an unclear image of just what the voters' prevailing sentiments real- ly were. Kinzer's Times report had a large number of interviews with elec- tors either not interested in voting, preferring Cruz, or voting to keep in favor with the government, thereby assuring necessary supplies. (He did find four enthusiastic Sandinistas in the Army.) Julia Preston in The Globe found "many" Sandinista supporters in one paragraph, but spent several paragraphs on the opposition. Inter- views conducted by Robert McCart- ney in The Post and Juan Tamayo in the Miami Herald roughly corres- ponded to the vote outcome in their proportion of preferances. Final returns put the turnout at 75% of registered voters. This amounted to 70% of the voting-age population, as compared to 52% in the United States and 60-80% (depending on how refu- gees are counted) in El Salvador in 1982. The Sandinistas received sup- port from some 44% of the voting-age population compared to 31% for Reagan. Judging from U.S. coverage, these figures were not legitimizing. To the contrary, a New York Times piece the day after the election found Philip Taubman citing at length administra- tion views that the elections were going to worsen relations with the United States, because they had not been fair or democratic. In the end, the whole affair had little to do with democracy, by U.S. press accounts. In fact, an electoral process unique among ruling revolutionary regimes was treated as an international provo- cation.

Tags: Nicaragua, Elections, media, Sandinistas, bias

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