NICARAGUA Problems that affect freedom of the press persist in Nicaragua. The administration of President Arnoldo Alemán has a policy of confrontation with the national press, which makes relations between the media and the executive increasingly tense. The situation also produces an air of uncertainty among independent journalists. In his third annual report before the National Assembly delivered January 10, the president used inappropriate language to attack the three leading dailies. He accused them of “betraying the motherland” for publishing a paid space with a statement by the president of Honduras (“for a few more dollars,” Alemán said). The text dealt with the border conflict that arose between the two countries after the Honduran congress approved a maritime treaty with Colombia. Nicaragua said the treaty violated the nation’s continental shelf and territorial waters. The press published the communiqué from the Honduran presidency to meet its obligation to provide diverse opinions of public interest. Moreover, the publication represented a contribution to the peaceful solution of the conflict–by diplomatic and legal means in international courts–and to prevent a war that would be catastrophic for Nicaragua, Honduras and Central America. The communiqué presented the Honduran position and called as well for resolving the conflict peacefully. The Alemán administration charged that newspapers in Honduras refused to publish a communiqué from the Nicaraguan president. Therefore, it claimed, the Nicaraguan press should not have accepted publication of the Honduran statement. The allegations about the Honduran press later turned out to be false. The president also referred in his report to newspapers and especially, it seemed, to La Prensa. He called the press “irrelevant minorities and family interests encrusted in the news business who, in addition to benefiting from dubious tax privileges granted by the previous administration, profit from unlimited freedom of the press. He also called the press “mercenary” and accused it of “demonizing a priori in an irrational and outraged” manner the dialogue or political pact between the two majority parties in the National Assembly, the Liberal Constitutionalists (PLC) and the FSLN (Sandinistas). He accused the press of alleged “malicious concealment and disinformation efforts” to conceal the good works of the government. The press was also guilty, he said, of “reinventing the term ‘governability’ and of using it sui generis.” The three leading dailies received a letter January 12 from Byron Jerez, Secretary General of the Finance and Public Credit Ministry and Director General of Income (DGI). In the letter, dated January 4, he categorically denied any tax exemption for the vehicles owned by the print medium; he said the exemption was only authorized for radio and television. The three papers appealed Jerez’ decision, but the dispute has not yet been resolved. The pact between the FSLN and the PLC had grave consequences for Carlos Guadamuz, the owner director of Radio YA. The station was seized as part of legal action initiated in connection with labor demands supposedly engineered to that end by persons partial to the FSLN. Guadamuz worked closely with FSLN leader Daniel Ortega and held the job of director of the state-owned radio station during the Sandinista administration. When the FSLN went out of office, a part of the state radio quickly became Radio YA, constituted as a corporation in which Guadamuz was the principal stockholder. Later he emerged as the station’s sole owner. During the past 10 years the station and its owner were noted for combative partiality toward the FSLN. However, Guadamuz, who also is a councilman for the city of Managua, forcefully opposed a plan advanced by the administration and the FSLN to divide Managua into three separate municipalities. Supposedly, such a split would affect Guadamuz’s aspirations of becoming mayor of Managua. The controversy led to a direct confrontation between Guadamuz and the Sandinista leadership. On December 22, 1999, five employees of the radio station entered a lawsuit and sued for compensation of US$40,000. The judge of the 3rd District Court ordered the property attached and named two of the plaintiffs as depositaries for the embargoed assets, although the law requires Guadamuz himself to be the depositary. The legal action led to Guadamuz losing control of Radio YA. Another Guadamuz property, Radio Stéreo YA on the FM band, had its studios robbed. The frequency-regulating agency (Telcor) canceled the station’s license because it said the required fees had not been paid. The upshot is that Radio YA is now being operated by the plaintiffs/depositaries under the name Nueva Radio YA. On March 1 the president submitted to the National Assembly a bill titled “Law to Protect, Dignify and Encourage the Practice of Journalism.” The bill proposes a minimum wage of US$500 a month for radio and print journalists and US$1,500 for television journalists. This latter figure is well above what the government pays doctors, teachers and police officers. The salary of a teacher, including all benefits, does not exceed US$80 monthly; of a school principal, US$120; of a doctor, US$300, and a hospital director, US$400. Article 5 of the proposed law would grant journalists who reached age 60 a pension for life of US$250 a month to be paid with state funds. Article 8 grants journalists who have worked for 10 years or who are retired the right to import tax-free every four years a vehicle whose CIF does not exceed US$15,000. A commission of the Information Ministry, Social Security, the Ministry of Labor and the two press associations would be responsible for supervising and enforcing the law. It would also be authorized to fine the media up to US$4,000 for non-compliance. It should be mentioned that President Alemán disregarded an appeal to raise public sector salaries because of budgetary cuts. The proposed media salary law has been widely criticized because it is viewed as a government tactic designed to create divisions within the labor union and between owners of media companies and journalists. The Latin American Federation of Journalists (FELAP) and the International Organization of Journalists (OIP) backed a minimum salary for journalists because, for the most part, they do not do not have a decent wage. But the two groups rejected Alemán’s proposal because “it implies the closing of small businesses and unemployment for colleagues who work as contributors, as well as the termination of journalists at companies unable to meet higher operating costs.” Private business, (COSEP), the Nicaraguan American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) and the Nicaraguan Institute of Development (INDE) have harshly criticized the project. Many media companies could not sustain such salaries and would have to close. The government, moreover, continues to apply a policy of financial punishment to the media detractors while rewarding its supporters by manipulating the placement of state advertising. Two of the three leading papers and the main television channel have been fighting for the past year against hefty tax adjustments that are still pending. While it is normal for the DGI to audit business firms, these audits are conducted randomly. However, in this case the audits have targeted the most independent and critical media. The National Assembly is considering criminal law reforms. According to a draft that has been made public, the proposed changes compare favorably with existing legislation. For example, the draft stipulates that the fines for libel and slander would be determined in terms of wages by day. This means that the fine would be proportionate to the income of the accused. The current law sets fine that are very high and applied equally to everybody. The new law would also: eliminate the requirement that a news medium be shut down if the fines have not been paid within three days, but continue to pay all salaries and benefits to employees; eliminate the provision which names publishers, editors and owners as co-defendants in all lawsuits for slander and libel.