Barricada and Beyond

Journalism in Nicaragua

by Adam Jones

[Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 4: 4 (Fall 1999), pp. 127-31]

[Note: for citation purposes, a new page in the text as published in the Harvard International Journal is indicated by square brackets and a boldface page number.]

Carlos Chamorro (Photo, 3k)Less than five years ago, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, editor of the Nicaraguan weekly Confidencial, was at the center of some dramatic events in Central American journalism. Chamorro is the son of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the famous journalist who was gunned down in 1978 by the somoza dictatorship, and of Violeta Chamorro, the former elected Nicaraguan president.

In 1980, at the age of twenty-three, Chamorro was appointed editor of the official organ of the Sandinista Front, Barricada. He directed the paper until 1994. During the tumultuous 1980s, Barricada's journalists and editors held to a professional imperative in their reporting and managed to maintain a degree of distance from the Sandinista leadership. When the Sandinistas lost power in 1990 - to a coalition headed by Chamorro's anti-Sandinista mother - Barricada seized the opportunity to pursue a less partisan, more pluralistic journalism. In 1991, the paper was formally relaunched, with its guerrilla-at-the-barricades logo removed. Chamorro and other senior editors pushed for a diversity of op-ed commentary, wider consultation of sources in reporting, and a broader news, sports, and entertainment agenda.

Meanwhile, the Sandinista Front was plagued by factional disputes in the aftermath of the election defeat. A more "orthodox" faction, led by former president Daniel Ortega, pushed for direct party control over the newly autonomous Barricada and pushed Chamorro out in October 1994. Barricada staff protested and waged a rhetorical war in the paper's own pages against the party leadership. In the end, most of Barricada's editorial staff resigned or were forced out. The paper folded in February 1998.

I have interviewed Chamorro on more than a dozen occasions over the last decade. The following conversation took place in July 1998 at a restaurant in Managua.

Mr. Jones: What lessons do you draw from the Barricada experience?

Mr. Chamorro: Well, what can we say? One angle would be that transitions don't always produce the results you're looking for. You can have different outcomes. Barricada is one way of showing that you can have a positive transition [after 1990], but at the same time a regression [after 1994]. There's no way to predict that political transitions will always lead to the modernization of the press, or pluralism, or whatever. [128]

J. It's not necessarily a linear process?

C. That's right. How do you explain that? I don't think it's just a question of the power struggle within the Sandinista Front. It's partly that, but I think a very important point is how permanent the conception has been, on the Left, of the press as an extension of the party apparatus. That idea is still there. For me, that is what explains most of the problems between the Front and Barricada, before 1994 and after '94. I don't know very well the experience in, say, El Salvador, because in El Salvador the FMLN [leftist rebel group] never had a newspaper. But they had radio stations, and I've talked to colleagues from there [who said] it's more or less the same problem.

One question we cannot answer completely is how viable - in economic and journalistic terms - was the project we were putting together [at Barricada]. But even though we didn't have the time to see all its potential or economic results, I think it was viable in the medium-term. I think the Barricada experience was very rich and important for Nicaraguan media. When this project was aborted, we were getting close to the point of becoming more or less accepted as part of the national journalistic culture. I don't think we'd reached that point, but we were close to it. That's something I wrote as my final words when Barricada closed [in 1998]. I said I didn't know how conscious people were that when the project was cut short in 1994, not only did the Sandinista Front lose an opportunity, but the country lost a newspaper. A national newspaper, or a newspaper that was starting to become a national newspaper.

J. Can we speak in abstract terms about values like "autonomy," "professionalism," "objectivity"? I see them as central to the autonomy experiment at Barricada. But are they contingent on other factors?

C. Objectivity is not a value I share. I think objectivity is something very ideological. I don't think there is any objectivity at all in journalism. I think there are standards - certain rules you follow in gathering information - but that cannot be separated from the personal values you have. I don't think there is any absolute neutrality or purity in journalism at all. I think the question is: How do you approach the task of searching for the truth? How do you tell stories?

J. But you do think there is something called the truth.

C. I think there's something called the truth, and you try to approximate it. But I don't think by doing journalism you're just gathering facts. I think the press has some kind of social responsibility. That's what I've always thought, I guess. Twenty years ago, I thought the social responsibility could be attained within a party framework. Now I believe the only way you can represent that responsibility is in a more complex way. [129]

Who are professional journalists accountable to? We don't want to be dependent on corporate or party interests. But then, how do you establish accountability for the press? My view is that we must make public the professional rules that we follow: our codes of ethics, our values and truth-claims. Then we can offer those instruments to the public, which can use them to make us more accountable to them! I believe we have a higher responsibility to help create the conditions for accountability. I don't think accountability can be attained through state regulation - still less so in countries like Nicaragua.

J. Is the "watchdog" image of the press the central one for you, then? Is the press the guardian of the public interest?

C. I think that's important, but insufficient. The idea of the press as watchdog - what does it mean? Does it mean the role of the press is to make state mechanisms work more smoothly? Is it there to be the moral protector of society? It all sounds fine, and it might sound very revolutionary at certain moments, but it can also be turned to conservative ends. I think the press should try to move beyond that.

J. To become a public-opinion leader?

C. Right. Not to give up on the possibility of promoting change, of promoting transformation in society, and people's participation in decision-making. Is that a political role? Yes. I think the role of the press is political in that sense. I see a very close connection between the press and democracy.

J. How do you define that? What's the conception of democracy that the press can bolster?

C. One thing is that the press should be accessible to citizens. And it's not. In general, it mostly responds to elite needs, not to citizens' needs. So how do you become accessible to citizens, and build an agenda that will take their needs into consideration? How do you cope with the fact that you are dealing with different publics, different political interests and values?

It's not easy, but I think the press has a major responsibility to promote a different quality of democracy. In countries like Nicaragua, this is quite easy for me to see. Because there's huge inequities, not just in terms of social justice, but in terms of a large section of society being completely excluded from the decision-making process. They simply don't exist as citizens. You could say that part of the press's role should be to promote political or social participation. That is also the role of political parties and social movements, but the press must do it in its own way. I don't believe the press can change everything. Its key role is in promoting public debate, not in mobilizing people to transform things. That may be necessary at some point, but I believe less in it now. [130]

J. Let me explore a couple of potential contradictions or difficulties in that portrait. First of all, we're talking about advocacy on behalf of the general public. But when we talk about Nicaragua, we're talking about a population which is limited by illiteracy and lack of consumer purchasing-power. The vast majority of poor people in this country access broadcast media, if they access any media at all. Is there an essentially elitist dimension to the printed press, and hence to the idea of the public-opinion leader?

C. I don't think it's elitist by definition. I understand your point, but I don't think the lack of a large public necessarily prevents you from playing the role of opinion-leader. It doesn't tell you, for example, about the indirect impact you can have through broadcast media. The printed press in Nicaragua has always been much more than a point of reference for broadcast media. Also, even if you only distribute 20,000 copies, a lot of poor Nicaraguans will read each copy. I don't think it's a question of printed press versus radio or television. I believe each has its strengths. My own experience in television [with the weekly program Esta Semana] showed me that if you understand the language of TV, you can have the best of both worlds. You can have influence and visibility, and you can reach the masses.

I'd always liked television. I always thought Nicaraguan television was underutilized, in political terms and in journalistic terms. So [after the 1994 crisis at Barricada] I thought: what are my options? I didn't have the capital to promote a largescale project that would allow me to reunite everybody who had worked with me at Barricada. I thought I should try something new, on a very small scale. I came up with this idea of a weekly opinion program, which was actually very innovative. The first unusual thing was the time of day: Sunday at ten a.m. Nobody had tried to put on a program at that time. It wasn't my choice, it was what the station owner offered me.

My first concern was to create an audience. I said, "I'm going to build an audience by providing good-quality journalism" - sticking to news analysis, and trying to get rid of any lingering association with politics that I might have in people's minds. For the first three months, I didn't bring on the program any traditional politicians. I dealt with problems like corruption, the police, justice, culture, the national baseball team - anything except politics. People began to appreciate the program as something of a different quality, compared to what other people were doing on television. They found it more thoughtful. It was fair in offering different sides of a problem, in interviewing people - not aggressively, but asking the questions that had to be asked. I also took advantage of my relationship with CINCO [a foreign-funded media-research centre that Chamorro directed after 1994] to do my own polling. I could do them on my own, and I had a lot of polls dealing with young people - not just covering politics, but education, sex, and other issues. [131]

Once I knew I had an audience, I felt more in control. I wasn't just choosing topics according to "What would people like?," but also according to what I thought was important for them to know. Sometimes I would choose a topic that some people would think was too serious for a mass audience. Once I had the audience, though, I could take that chance - and it worked well. It really tells you that if you do something to a certain standard of quality, everybody will get used to it. I don't buy the idea that you have to give people something cheap - the lowest common denominator. To the contrary: if you give them the highest common denominator, it will work just fine. In that sense, I was applying the same philosophy I'd had at Barricada.

[Adam Jones received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of British Columbia in June 1999.]

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Copyright 1999 by the President and the Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Used by permission. Chamorro photograph courtesy Confidencial.