Ten Reflections in Defense of Freedom of Expresión
January 10 was the 30th anniversary of the Somoza dictatorship’s assassination of the highly respected newsman and politician, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal. His son, journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, flanked by his siblings and
other well-known political and cultural figures, used the occasion
to read a “Declaration in Defense of Freedom of Expression”
on the harmony between the thought and action of this
“Martyr for Public Liberty” and offer 10 reflections
in defense of freedom of expression today.
envío supports and commits itelf to the
principles and proosals they contain.
Fundación Violeta Barrios de Chamorro
Quoting his father, Carlos Fernando began, “As long as there is a typewriter, a sheet of paper, a microphone, a public square, a balcony or any space to speak, even if it is a jail cell, we will continue to denounce those who are immoral, especially when they trade in the social needs of the poorest. That is the main purpose of our existence, as men, as journalists and as citizens.” (“In the face of a holdup they call law,” La Prensa, September 28, 1973).
Such was the thinking of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal. Thirty years after his assassination, today we invoke the enduring power of his pluralist philosophy and the unity of his thought and action, which was sealed by his sacrifice. It was a philosophy sustained through more than three decades of courageous and honest political practice, intertwined with a prolific journalistic career, which began with the founding of the daily La Prensa in 1948. At that time, he proclaimed in an editorial entitled “In the service of truth and justice”:
“Censorship, suspensions, closures, threatening positions and exile have merely served to get us through the most critical moments, to renew with unflagging energy the urgent task of creating, day after day, through all the weeks and months of the year, a newspaper that accurately and faithfully represents the character, the thinking, the reality and the hope of the Nicaraguan people.” (“The Nicaraguan press is the currency of truth and voice of justice of the people we serve.” La Prensa, 1948)
In 1954, celebrating the first 28 years of La Prensa’s existence, he warned presciently: “Men die and pass on; but ideas become eternal in the conscience of the generations. Sometimes the hands of those who produce newspapers can be tied, and even their lives taken; but whenever this happens, other men emerge and, joined to the original idea, form a vast chain of beliefs that, in the end, suffocates all attitudes not founded in freedom, the good of the Republic and the categorical imperatives of what is moral, which can certainly be obscured for a long time, but not forever. Justice, truth and the accurate account of what happened in our time will continue to hammer at the conscience of the citizens of that time, from the same place and with the same force.” (“Twenty-eight years of La Prensa”, March 3, 1954)
In 1962, during an event in his honor, he gave a speech titled “My greatest ambition is to continue being a journalist.” He said: “In this homage, tribute is being paid not to a man, but to this first of all freedoms, freedom of the press, freedom of expression. You are here because you want to support the journalist who carries, written in his body and soul, the great reportage of all these years of struggle against corruption, against robbery, against injustice, against oppression; an account that is ongoing, like life itself; the account of our time and our people. This reportage is made possible through freedom of expression, the most important freedom of all, because without it there is no freedom of political action, no freedom for unions to form, no freedom to meet, no free elections.” (La Prensa, February 12, 1962)
In 1973, in an editorial on the Liberal-Conservative pacts between Agüero and Somoza titled “Not on either side,” he proclaimed: “Our country needs another, different alternative to the one created by the pacts, and if it is true that the most pressing things these days are food, water, electricity, work and care for the victims [of the Managua earthquake on December 23, 1972], it is also true that we cannot stop thinking about the hope for a free democratic system in the future, whose foundations we must go on planning calmly and resolutely to create a Nicaragua without permanent victims. We were not in favor of the pact-makers of yesterday because we thought what they did was bad for the country, and we cannot be in favor of the pact-makers of today (successors of the earlier ones) because our position is based on a straightforward interpretation of the common good, of politics as an instrument for achieving progress and genuine peace for the people, and never on mere personal considerations.” (La Prensa, March 9, 1973)
Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal never held public office, nor did he accept any benefit from the state. But he was the most jealous defender of public integrity and demanded proper and transparent use of the people’s money. In 1976, he wrote with respect to La Prensa’s political and social image: “La Prensa, without closing its pages to those who disagree with its point of view or even to its harshest critics, sees the eradication of the dynastic system of public power as indispensable to achieving complete freedom of the individual, and proposes the replacement of the family dictatorship of today with a democratic and pluralist regime, in which producers’ associations as well as professional and business groups and organized workers can participate in government decisions, and in which a more just distribution of wealth may be achieved in an orderly and peaceful manner.” (“A manifesto on culture and freedom,” La Prensa, March 1, 1976).
And in one of his last speeches, which he gave in November 1977, less than a year before the popular insurrection that toppled the Somoza dictatorship, he defined the unity of the people in the following terms:
“Unity in fighting for justice. Unity in fighting for freedom. Unity in launching a democratization process that clears the way for structural transformations that will form the basis for establishing a democratic political regime. With economic and social justice, with effective external independence for our country. And unity, the unity of the whole population, of all political, economic and social sectors, in fighting for the democratization of Nicaragua, is the command given by our history and by today’s urgent need. Unity is history’s command because history teaches us that the dynastic dictatorship has strengthened and perpetuated our divisions. Unity is also an urgent need posed by the circumstances the country is experiencing today because we are faced, here and now, with greater opportunities than ever to decide Nicaragua’s future, with a dramatic choice between dictatorship or the hope-filled alternative of democracy.”
Such was the thinking of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal. And this thinking led him to struggle until his last day of life to eradicate the Somoza dictatorship and achieve Nicaragua’s democratization.
Thirty years after the assassination of the Martyr for Public Liberty, we present the nation with the following ten principles, reflections and proposals, aimed at building and enriching a national agenda in defense of freedom with everyone’s participation:
FIRST: We reaffirm that freedom of expression is not a gift given by the government nor the exclusive patrimony of the media and journalists. It is a universal human right, entrenched in our Constitution, a civil right won through the people’s struggle and sealed with their blood, and for that reason, we are morally obliged to defend it at any cost.
We proclaim with Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal that freedom of expression is the foundation upon which all other human freedoms rest, and, as such, the basis of the rule of law. And on this 10th of January, we call on all citizens, irrespective of political stripe, to claim this right as their own and to exercise and defend it without fear or faltering.
SECOND: After a year of government by President Daniel Ortega, we note with concern that there is more poverty and unemployment and less freedom in Nicaragua today. We observe a serious deterioration in the climate for the exercise of freedom of expression.
Contrary to his promises of tolerance and national reconciliation, President Ortega has made it a practice of his style of government to launch virulent attacks on the journalists, media, civil society organizations, and political parties that monitor his administration.
These threats represent an expression of extreme intolerance toward criticism, and also constitute a dangerous incitement to violence by his party followers.
For this reason, we demand that the President cease his attacks and call on all sectors of the nation to practice solidarity, so that the principle of zero tolerance of any direct or indirect threat to freedom of expression, public liberties and democratic institutions will prevail.
THIRD: The policy of withholding and centralizing public information, institutionalized from the Executive down, runs contrary to any kind of democratic practice, especially one that boasts of promoting direct democracy.
It is not possible to fight poverty effectively under a secretive system of government. It is not possible to confront natural tragedies or hunger successfully without a free flow of information.
It is not possible to promote civic participation when citizens lack information about public decision-making, or when they are excluded by political sectarianism.
It is not possible to promote democracy when those in power refuse to take part in public debate and attempt to impose monologue as the norm. We therefore demand the establishment of a free and professional relationship between government officials and citizens through the communications media; a halt to reprisals cease against public officials who attempt to fulfill their duty to inform; and the disappearance of the blacklists of media and journalists with blocked access to public information.
FOURTH: The approval of the Law on Access to Public Information represents important institutional progress in promoting a culture of transparency in the public sector. This law constitutes a victory by citizens and is the result of sustained work by a coalition of civil society organizations. Despite resistance from some National Assembly representatives who tried to use the law to regulate journalism, the law provides citizens and journalists with new legal instruments to strengthen their access to public information. However, the moment of truth that will demonstrate whether the government has the political will to apply the law rigorously has not yet arrived.
The government should take the first step by publishing the law’s regulations and giving public entities the resources to fulfill their legal obligations. But in the end, it is up to citizens and their organizations, unions, journalists and the media to put the state’s political will to the test in applying the law.
FIFTH: We observe that the government of President Ortega is maintaining a discriminatory policy with respect to allocating state publicity. Contrary to the principles of the Declaration of Chapultépec, signed by then-candidate Ortega in 2001, state publicity is still being used as a tool to reward or punish the media and journalists.
In Argentina, the Supreme Court of Justice established a continent-wide precedent last September by ruling that discrimination in allocating state publicity should be considered “indirect censorship” of a media outlet. Meanwhile, here in Nicaragua, the President makes a mockery even of his own promises to the College of Journalists; and state resources, which are supposed to be used for social communication campaigns, are being used to promote a personality cult and create a confusion between state and party through the official media.
SIXTH: As businesses, media outlets have a duty to comply with the law and the Constitution, and should not benefit from any form of favoritism. But it is anti-democratic for the state and the political class to use the law to carry out reprisals against the media by using tax, customs, telecommunications or other entities in a discretionary manner.
We therefore call on the Supreme Court of Justice to render a decision in the legal case that has been brought against the “Arce Law,” in accordance with constitutional precepts.
Meanwhile, we call on the National Assembly representatives to legislate on telecommunications, establish transparent procedures for allocating and renewing radio frequencies, eliminate discretionality in state policy and provide stability for the electronic media. The National Assembly representatives have an historic responsibility to give priority to discussing and approving laws proposed in defense of freedom of expression.
SEVENTH: The media have a responsibility to help expand democracy. As Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal said: “Freedom of the press is necessary, but not sufficient, for the establishment of a democratic regime.” Political pluralism, free and transparent elections, a true rule of law, civic oversight of and accountability from rulers and, above all, the continuous expansion of the rights of citizens are also required.
The media’s role in building democracy is not to try to take the place of political parties, courts, auditors or police, but rather to exercise a critical function and contribute to the modernization of these institutions, so they carry out their functions properly. But, consistent with the goal of promoting democracy, the media itself must follow internal norms of behavior, rules and codes of ethics that promote democratic practices and values.
EIGHTH: In Nicaragua, journalists and the media enjoy a high level of credibility compared with state institutions. In large measure, their status results from reporting on wrongdoing and their role as an escape valve for citizens. But there is cause for concern in the abusively sensationalist way some media outlets deal with violence, their disrespect for the rights of children, their discrimination against women and their flagrant human rights violations.
It is imperative that the media reestablish their credibility by coming together to create an agreement on ethical self-regulation. The media’s best defense against harassment from those in power is to be a credible and responsible press for citizens. Consequently, we call on citizens to exercise critical vigilance of the media, in order to institutionalize a culture of debate and accountability.
NINTH: Despite the government’s secretiveness, journalists, the media and civil society organizations have played a crucial role during this first year of President Ortega’s government in investigating public corruption and defending citizens’ rights. It is true that every time an abuse is denounced or transparency demanded, the government responds with threats, slander and defamation campaigns—and that there have even been cases of physical harassment against journalists. But it is also true that Nicaraguan journalism has remained united and firm, and has not allowed these official intimidation tactics to succeed. No retreat is possible in the commitment to defending freedom. And today, the 10th of January, we call for a renewal of that commitment, as the best homage that can be offered to Pedro Joaquín Chamorro’s memory.
TENTH: Nicaragua is experiencing a serious institutional crisis that threatens to spill over into deteriorating economic and social conditions. The crisis of the state provoked by the President of the Republic’s lack of respect for the law and his partisan use of the courts represents a very serious risk in terms of the poverty and unemployment of the majority of Nicaraguans, because:
Without the rule of law, there can be no solution to the economic crisis.
Without the rule of law, there can be no viable democracy.
Without the rule of law, there is no chance of increased investment, employment generation or poverty reduction.
Without the rule of law, freedom of expression is at risk and there is no guarantee for citizens’ rights.
And without the rule of law, the whole official discourse of direct democracy is rendered empty, reduced to pure demagoguery.
The presence or absence of the rule of law marks the difference between democracy and authoritarianism, between the republic of free citizens that Pedro Joaquín Chamorro dreamed of and struggled for and dictatorship, which is once again trying to take over our country. Therefore, today, the 10th of January, thirty years after his assassination, we are once again called upon to proclaim with Pedro Joaquín Chamorro: Nicaragua will become a Republic once again!
The Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation was created by the former President of Nicaragua (1990-1997) and widow of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro to foster the journalistic values and principles of a democratic society expressed here.