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Keeping the media at arm's distance

Media critics might find a lot in common with leaders of two Central American nations.

Both Panama and Nicaragua are ruled by what I might call “imperial presidents.” After winning office, they decided to communicate with the electorate strictly on their own terms. President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and his counterpart in Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, do not field routine queries from the media.

Gotta a question? Good luck getting an answer. I couldn’t.

I’ve just come back from a 9-day trip to Panama and can attest to changes in the country, many for the better. I used to visit Panama frequently when access to Cabinet ministers, politicians and even presidents was fairly easy. But this time, despite emails to President Martinelli and his spokesman, Luis Eduardo Camacho, and multiple phone calls to Camacho’s office, I got no return call or email.

Nicaragua is a more extreme case. All media queries funnel through Daniel Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo. On two trips there since mid-2010, I emailed her _ no response _ and hunted for the government communications office. Guess what? No listed phone number. I called the state-owned Radio Nicaragua. They said they didn’t have Murillo’s number. I called the president’s office and the FSLN party office and got no help. Murillo is the spokeswoman but there’s no way to contact her. Yes, we have no bananas.

Martinelli (rich businessman to the political right) and Ortega (now a rich businessman in the camp of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez) are far apart on the political spectrum. But both share reasons for not wanting to pesky questions.

Martinelli is seeking to remake his nation with huge projects, such as a $1.8 billion metro system and a coastal causeway. Yet he’s faced questions about nepotism, corruption and his ties to an Italian fixer for former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. He’s also been hostile to reporters. In April at a news conference, he suggested one reporter was on drugs. The remark triggered a street march and a subsequent apology from the president. Libel and slander suits are on the rise in Panama. Three TV journalists were acquitted this week of showing a video of a police officer allegedly seeking a bribe. A mystery video also appeared earlier this month YouTube 10 days ago launching unsubstantiated attacks on Santiago Cumbrera, an investigative reporter for La Prensa, who has been delving into corruption issues.

In Nicaragua, Ortega and his supporters are buying up control of private television stations. Ortega receives upwards of $500 million a year in subsidies from Venezuela. The money is largely off the books. Will taxpayers be required to repay any of this money? Is it a loan or gift or what? Until Ortega decides that it’s in the interest of the public to know, these kinds of questions go unanswered. And Murillo won’t be listing her phone number.


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Serenity Escapes

que habra pasado con Ortega?...he is a poster boy , well, at least one of them, as to how power will corrupt you big time...

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This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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