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

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 30 2009 9:25 AM

Giving Journalists the Silent Treatment

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

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. Click image to expand.
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.

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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.