El Nuevo Diario (END), the country’s second-largest daily newspaper and one of the few remaining critical voices left in Nicaraguan media, took a sudden punch to the kidneys this week as part of an unexpected butterfly effect from its change of ownership last May.
On Dec. 28, the newspaper’s new owners—a group led by Nicaraguan businessman Ramiro Ortiz, owner of the Bank of Production (Banpro)—announced the forced resignation of veteran news director Francisco “Chico” Chamorro, who will be replaced on Jan. 3 by the untested León Núñez, an occasional columnist and former member of the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) who—despite being respected for his intellect—has no experience running a newspaper.
Chamorro’s quick ouster, allegedly due to irreconcilable differences over the newspaper’s feisty editorial line, completes the changing of the old guard. Last August, El Nuevo Diario’s highly respected and fiercely combative founding director, Danilo Aguirre Solís, also left the paper under circumstances that were never made entirely clear.
So far, neither the newspaper’s owners nor Chamorro has offered an explanation about what happened earlier this week. Chamorro did not return Nicaragua Dispatch’s requests for comments.
What will become of El Nuevo Diario is anyone’s guess. But the newspaper’s apparent change of tack to ride with the wind, rather than against it, is cause for serious concern among the more serious career journalists in the newsroom.
At least one of the paper’s top journalists has already resigned, and others say they are debating whether to follow him out the door—an unnerving prospect in a country with very few employment opportunities for journalists. (And just as few employment opportunities for everyone else.)
According to one reporter at El Nuevo Diario, who wished to remain unidentified, the outgoing newsroom director told the journalists that the new owners want to declaw the newspaper and make it another harmless mouthpiece for government propaganda. The owners, the source said, are reportedly not interested in any type of news story that can be considered critical, controversial, political…or, apparently, even journalistic.
“The whole thing makes me sad,” the reporter lamented. The reporter expressed concern that El Nuevo Diario, in its allegedly unambitious effort to strive for editorial blandness, could cease to represent the public interest.
“The general manager of Banpro, Luis Rivas, met with us on Tuesday and emphasized that (the newspaper’s new owners) want a daily that does not go against the economic interests of the ownership group,” the journalist told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “He said the group has regional business interests in various sectors, including finance and real estate, and they don’t want to put that at risk. He also mentioned that (the owners) formed a focus group and found that people are sick of politics and don’t want to read anything more about it. So what the owners want is a daily that focuses more on positive social and economic news.”
The journalist said the owners also questioned reporters’ use of sources in recent months, especially those who identify as members of the left-wing Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).
The newspaper’s owners, meanwhile, are trying to downplay the significance of the newsroom shakeup. Though they haven’t made any public announcements, in private they have reportedly dismissed rumors that the paper will be resold, or—far worse yet—become another vacuous echo chamber for government twaddle.
El Nuevo Diario’s top story on Thursday, meanwhile, was a cheerful piece quoting various business leaders, economists and intellectuals applauding the overhaul to the newspaper’s editorial leadership. But that optimism is not shared by the journalists who actually work there, according to newsroom sources.
Despite the promising plumes of many young Nicaraguan reporters—and the steady pens of veteran columnists—the country’s journalism industry is not in its finest hour (not that journalism is experiencing a flourishing renaissance anywhere else).
The Sandinista government’s low-intensity tactics in what it has identified as a “media war” between the administration and independent media outlets has succeeded in silencing or co-opting many critical voices over the past five years. The presidential couple has starved critical media of advertising revenue and information, purchased distressed media outlets as gifts for their children, and verbally lashed out at the opposition media, calling them enemies of the government (a clear warning to businesses that advertising in said media outlets is the same as aiding and abetting the enemy).
As a result, five years after the Sandinista government returned to power, most media in Nicaragua has become either bloated and pandering or cash-strapped and critical. Either way, no media in Nicaragua is as relevant as it thinks or hopes.
The question on the mind of Nuevo Diario’s journalists is whether its new captains will attempt to trim its sails to the extent that the newspaper goes from critical to complacent without capsizing or causing a mutiny.
Right now, the lack of information about what course the newspaper plans to chart into 2012 could cause the paper to go adrift, says award-winning journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, who remains a leading influence on public opinion despite the declining impact of journalism in Nicaragua.
“I think that when such an important change occurs to the leadership of a newspaper, both sides are obliged to give an explanation so its readers and society know what to expect,” Chamorro said in an email. “Only then can we judge whether this will have some implication for the freedom of expression and pluralism in the country.”
Says last year’s Maria Moors Cabot recipient, “Definitively, we are facing a profound change to this news outlet, but we still don’t know the nature of those changes.”
For Nicaraguan media analyst Guillermo Rothschuh, director of CINCO’s Media Watchdog Group, it should come as no surprise that Grupo Ortiz should want to “influence the editorial policy” of El Nuevo Diario after buying the farm.
Still, he says, “I hope the change in direction won’t translate into a pinch on freedom of expression.”
Rothschuh said the new owners of El Nuevo Diario would be wise to remember that they gained a certain amount of public sympathy when they saved the newspaper last May from being purchased by the government, which also offered its hand as the paper gasped for air. At that time, Ortiz was applauded for buying the paper and insisting he wouldn’t change its editorial line.
Rothschuh noted that El Nuevo Diario, under the leadership of Chamorro, has established a proud and noble tradition of giving a voice to social sectors often excluded by Nicaragua’s traditional media outlets, including, “Women in their eternal struggle for justice in a machista society, children, adolescents, youth and other less fortunate groups.”
The media expert said El Nuevo Diario shouldn’t lose sight of that defining commitment amid the shuffle.
As for Núñez, Rothschuh said, the challenge to lead El Nuevo Diario into the future will be enormous and risky to both the newspaper’s reputation as well as his own.
“The challenge is bigger than they think,” Rothschuh said.