Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix V Segment 25/33
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While the tribulations of La Prensa receive extensive and anguished coverage in the United States and Europe, the media elsewhere in Central America merit little attention; being firmly under right-wing control through the workings of the market guided by state terror when needed, they raise few problems for dedicated defenders of freedom of the press.
Harper's editor Francisco Goldman published a review of the Central American press in August 1988.141 As others have observed, he writes that in Guatemala and El Salvador, censorship is hardly necessary: "you have to be rich to own a newspaper, and on the right politically to survive the experience. Papers in El Salvador don't have to be censored: poverty and deadly fear do the job." Correspondingly, the security forces are immune from any criticism, though political figures who do not completely conform to the agenda of the right-wing business class and oligarchy are fair game, often with "hallucinatory disinformation" of the sort familiar as well in Nicaragua's La Prensa. Journalistic standards are abysmal. The war and terror barely exist. Apart from "multi-page, technicolor sports supplements..., these newspapers seem made up almost entirely of society pages: the whole country dresses well and spends all its time floating from one baby shower to another."
In Honduras too, "the army is above criticism or investigation." And in keeping with the status of Honduras as a client state under effective military rule, "Honduran reporters have long been banned from firsthand reporting in the southern chunk of their country occupied by the contras."
Elsewhere we learn that American reporters are allowed in, but choose not to report on the hundreds of thousands of people starving to death or the many driven from their homes, despite pleas from the Church and relief workers. Rather, they report on the state of the "democratic resistance," which has "staged a number of scenes for their benefit" and provides them with footage that provides "more exciting news segments" and that creates "a good impression of the contras," including faked battle scenes, supply drops, and mining (with actual mines later laid by the CIA). It was also "a common tactic of the FDN [contras] to take reporters on a tour through the countryside, telling them that they were travelling through Nicaragua, when often they were still in Honduras." Another device was "to draw parallels with the Salvadoran guerrilla opposition" so as "to confuse the public, and make FDN forces appear roughly equivalent to the Salvadoran guerrillas" while concealing the fact that they were a CIA "proxy army...working for American goals." These and other mechanisms of media manipulation are described by Edgar Chamorro, the CIA-selected press spokesman for the contras, in his unmentionable study of how the U.S. media were handled.142
"Nicaragua at this moment has the freest print media in Central America," Goldman continues; its media have been incomparably freer than those in El Salvador and Guatemala through the 1980s, if only because journalists do not have to fear the retribution of the security forces. The Sandinista journal Barricada's "generally suffocating earnestness bears some relation to reality: there's often a real attempt to explain perhaps inexplicable Sandinista policies here (if no room to refute them)...with the occasional light touch thrown in to remind readers that even party militants are irrepressibly Nicaraguan." Examples, in fact, are not uncommon in Barricada, though in three months of La Prensa I found no such departures from its mission. La Prensa is "relentlessly ideological, propagandistic, one-sided, sensationalistic, negative and even dishonest." It is also unique: La Prensa, "alone of all the Central American newspapers can print whatever it wants against its country's `ruling power'," though it "seems no more enlightened, or enlightening, than Guatemala's Prensa Libre or any of El Salvador's politicking rags." Reviewing some fabrications about Sandinista atrocities, Goldman observes that no other newspaper in Central America could long survive after "leveling such accusations against its national army." One can hardly ignore the fact that "La Prensa has been cozy with our efforts (CIA, National Endowment for Democracy, Ollie North) to topple the Nicaraguan government." In reality, it is not only in Central America that such a newspaper would not long survive, under such conditions. An analogue in the history of the Western democracies is not easy to find; I know of none.
Accordingly, in the pages of the Washington Post and New York Times, La Prensa is a paragon of virtue, Nicaragua is a repressive dictatorship that bars freedom of expression, and the free press in democratic El Salvador represents all points of view.143
In Costa Rica, the government has a system of obligatory press licensing condemned by the Inter-American Human Rights Court in 1985. President Arias disagreed with the ruling that state licensing limits freedom of expression, and refused to comply with it. Though the media are free from censorship or state terror, "in practice, however, Costa Ricans often can obtain only one side of the story, since wealthy ultraconservatives control the major daily newspapers and broadcasting stations."144 In particular, the major journal La Nación and others have been engaged in a feverish anti-Sandinista campaign of distortion and disinformation -- with considerable effect, according to the unreportable José Figueres.145
La Prensa uses rather crude methods in portraying the government as the new Somoza regime opposed unanimously by the population that it robs and oppresses. In the United States, the project of "demonizing the Sandinistas" in accord with the directives of the Office of Latin American Public Diplomacy is conducted in a more subtle way. One device is careful selection of sources. A Stephen Kinzer article on the opening of La Prensa and the Catholic Radio station in October 1987 presents a sample of public opinion: the proprietress of a store "in a poor section of town" who says that "Truth is what I want, and La Prensa is the truth"; a banana vendor who predicts that the journal will soon be closed "and we'll be under twice as much pressure as before"; a laborer reading La Prensa aloud to friends who is saving it for his grandchildren; a truck driver who hasn't read a newspaper since La Prensa was suspended but doubts that this good fortune will last. In short, the People, United.
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141 "Sad Tales of La Libertad de Prensa," Harper's, Aug. 1988.
142 Chamorro, Packaging the Contras.
143 Though Goldman does not discuss the point, it is worth noting that by mid-1988 TV and radio in El Salvador were quite open to a range of positions, more so than the United States, I suspect, and that parts of the press would publish paid advertisements over a wide spectrum. The situation, of course, is radically different from Nicaragua, where a major journal, funded by the foreign power attempting to overthrow the government of Nicaragua, openly supports that effort.
144 Council on Hemispheric Affairs and The Newspaper Guild, A Survey of Press Freedom in Latin America 1985-1986 (Washington, Dec. 1986).
145 For discussion of many examples, see Mario Zeledón, ed., La Desinformación de la Prensa en Costa Rica: Un grave peligro para la Paz (Istituto Costarricense de Estudios Sociales, Costa Rica, 1987).