Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 5: The Utility of Interpretations Segment 8/11
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A few weeks later, Israeli security forces raided the offices of a leading Jerusalem daily, Al-Fajr, arresting its managing editor Hatem Abdel-Qader and jailing him for six months without trial on unspecified security grounds.49 There were no ringing editorial denunciations or calls for retribution; in fact, these trivialities were not even reported in the New York Times or Washington Post. Unlike Violeta Chamorro, to whom nothing of the sort has happened, Abdel-Qader does not "deserve 10 awards," or even one, or even a line.

Once again, the facts are clear: the alleged concern for freedom of the press in Nicaragua is sheer fraud.

Perhaps one might argue that censorship of La Prensa is more important than the murder of an editor by U.S.-backed security forces and the destruction of offices by the army or its terrorist squads, because La Prensa is a journal of such significance, having courageously opposed our ally Somoza under the leadership of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, assassinated by the dictator in 1978. That would be a poor argument at best; freedom of the press means little if it only serves powerful institutions. But there are further flaws. One is that the post-1980 La Prensa bears virtually no relation to the journal that opposed Somoza. After the murder of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, his brother Xavier became editor and remained so until the owners ousted him in 1980; 80 percent of the staff left with him and founded El Nuevo Diario, which is the successor to the old La Prensa if we consider a journal to be constituted of its editor and staff, not its owners and equipment. The new editor of La Prensa, son of the assassinated editor, had previously been selling advertising; later, he joined the CIA-run contra directorate, remaining co-editor of the journal, which publicly supports his stand.50

These facts are not be found in the media tributes to the brave tradition of La Prensa; they are either unmentioned in the course of lamentations over the fate of this "newspaper of valor," or treated in the style of Stephen Kinzer, who writes that El Nuevo Diario "was a breakaway group of employees of La Prensa sympathetic to the Sandinista cause" -- a "breakaway group" that included 80 percent of the staff and the editor, who opposed the new line of the CIA-supported journal.51

The extent of the hypocrisy becomes still more obvious when we consider the "newspaper of valor" more closely. The journal has quite openly supported the attack against Nicaragua. In April 1986, as the campaign to provide military aid to the contras was heating up, one of the owners, Jaime Chamorro, wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post calling for aid to "those Nicaraguans who are fighting for democracy" (the standard reference to the U.S. proxy forces). In the weeks preceding the summer congressional votes, "a host of articles by five different La Prensa staff members denounced the Sandinistas in major newspapers throughout the United States," John Spicer Nichols observes, including a series of Op-Eds signed by La Prensa editors in the Washington Post as they traveled to the United States under the auspices of front organizations of the North contra-funding network. Under its new regime, La Prensa has barely pretended to be a newspaper; rather, it is a propaganda journal devoted to undermining the government and supporting the attack against Nicaragua by a foreign power. Since its reopening in October 1987 the commitments are quite open and transparent.52 To my knowledge, there is no precedent for the survival and continued publication of such a journal during a period of crisis in any Western democracy, surely not the United States.53

Advocates of libertarian values should, nonetheless, insist that Nicaragua break precedent in this area, despite its dire straits, and deplore its failure to do so. As already mentioned, however, such advocates are not easy to discover, as the most elementary test of sincerity demonstrates.

It could be argued that comparison with the United States is inadequate, given the dismal U.S. record. We might take that to be the import of remarks by Supreme Court Justice William Brennan in a speech delivered at Hebrew University Law School in December 1987, where he observed that the United States "has a long history of failing to preserve civil liberties when it perceived its national security threatened" -- as during World War I, when there was not even a remote threat. "It may well be Israel, not the United States, that provides the best hope for building a jurisprudence that can protect civil liberties against the demands of national security," Brennan said, adding that "the nations of the world, faced with sudden threats to their own security, will look to Israel's experience in handling its continuing security crisis, and may well find in that experience the expertise to reject the security claims that Israel has exposed as baseless and the courage to preserve the civil liberties that Israel has preserved without detriment to its security." If we can draw lessons from Israel's stellar record, "adversity may yet be the handmaiden of liberty."54

Following the precepts of this characteristic accolade to the "symbol of human decency" -- and not coincidentally, loyal U.S. ally and client -- we derive a further test of the sincerity of those who denounce the totalitarian Sandinistas for their treatment of La Prensa and the political opposition. Let us proceed to apply it.

Just at the time that La Prensa was suspended in 1986 after the virtual U.S. declaration of war against Nicaragua, Israel permanently closed two Jerusalem newspapers, Al-Mithaq and Al-Ahd, on the grounds that "although we offer them freedom of expression, is forbidden to permit them to exploit this freedom in order to harm the State of Israel." The Interior Ministry declared that it was compelled to act "in the interest of state security and public welfare." We believe in freedom of the press, the Ministry asserted, but "one has to properly balance freedom of expression and the welfare of the state." The closure was upheld by the High Court on the grounds that "it is inconceivable that the State of Israel should allow terrorist organizations which seek to destroy it to set up businesses in its territory, legitimate as they may be"; the government had accused these two Arab newspapers of receiving support from hostile groups.55 To my knowledge, the only mention of these facts in a U.S. newspaper was in a letter of mine to the Boston Globe.

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49 Wire services, Boston Globe, Sept. 5, 1988.

50 See appendix V, section 6.

51 Kinzer, NYT, April 20, 1987. Elsewhere, Kinzer writes that "In 1980, La Prensa was shaken by internal conflict when a group of employees objected to its increasingly anti-Sandinista line. The dissident employees, led by Xavier Chamorro Cardenal, a brother of the late publisher, quit and founded their own paper, Nuevo Diario" (NYT, Oct. 2, 1987). Omitted is the fact that Xavier Chamorro was the editor and that the "dissident employees" constituted 80 percent of the staff.

52 Chamorro, WP, April 3, 1986; Nichols, op. cit.; see appendix V, section 6.

53 For comparison of Nicaraguan practices with those of the U.S. and Israel, see references of chapter 4, note 3.

54 AP, Dec. 22, 1987; Cal Thomas, BG, Jan. 3, 1988.

55 Al-Hamishmar, July 25, Aug. 13; Jerusalem Post, Aug. 12, 24; Al-Hamishmar, July 25, Aug. 13, 1986.