© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Males trip on a motorbike previous an workplace of the Nicaraguan tax authority (DGI), in Managua
By Drazen Jorgic and Ismael Lopez
MANAGUA (Reuters) – In early 2010, Nicaragua’s Canal 8, an impartial tv community, had a brand new proprietor.
Particulars of the deal – the id of the client, the acquisition value, an actual date for the transaction – remained secret. The vendor died of most cancers quickly after.
However a well-known face quickly took cost at Canal 8: the son of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. The leftist chief, who rose to prominence within the late Chilly Battle together with his Sandinista revolutionaries, had reclaimed the presidency three years earlier than.
Canal 8 was lengthy identified for scrutinizing administrations each left and proper. However new chief govt Juan Carlos Ortega Murillo, then 28 years previous, shortly imposed orders for “excellent news” about his father’s authorities, in accordance with a number of former workers of the station.
Many Nicaraguans shortly concluded the younger Ortega’s appointment meant the primary household or its allies have been behind the acquisition. They have been proper.
In keeping with beforehand undisclosed tax paperwork from earlier this yr, Canal 8 is owned by Yadira Leets Marin, spouse of Rafael Ortega Murillo, one other son of the president. It is not clear whether or not Leets Marin was concerned within the 2010 buy, however the paperwork determine her as Canal 8’s majority proprietor now. She did not reply to requests from Reuters for remark.
The takeover of Canal 8 by the Ortega clan was step one in a media technique that over the previous decade has saturated the Central American nation’s airwaves, newsstands and smartphone screens with pro-government protection.
The technique was hinted at by Ortega’s spouse, Rosario Murillo, in a public communique she issued because the president’s communications chief shortly after he started his second administration in 2007. The objective: not solely guarantee constructive protection, but in addition safe outright management of media properties by Ortega and allies.
Within the years since, the president, his household and shut associates have gained possession or managerial management of at the very least a dozen TV channels, radio stations, and on-line information websites.
A number of the acquisitions, together with the Canal 8 deal, have been financed at the very least partly by funds supplied by oil-rich Venezuela, stated three present and former workers and folks acquainted with the acquisitions.
The Ortega household itself, in accordance with 2020 tax and company registration paperwork reviewed by Reuters, controls possession of Canal 8 and radio broadcaster Radio Ya.
Buddies and shut allies, in accordance with the paperwork, personal three further tv channels – Canal 4, Canal 13, and Canal 22 – all managed by youngsters of the Ortegas. A fourth station, Canal 2, can be owned by an affiliate, in accordance with individuals acquainted with the channel, and the Ortegas handle its information operations.
Via state possession, the Ortegas management TV broadcaster Canal 6, nationwide community Radio Nicaragua, and on-line information portals like El 19 Digital. Associates of the primary household personal at the very least three different radio stations, all brazenly allied with the federal government.
Nicaraguans for years have speculated in regards to the extent of the Ortegas’ management of their nation’s media panorama. However the household has by no means formally disclosed what belongings it owns or operates via allied traders.
Reuters interviewed present and former workers of shops managed by the household in addition to dozens of presidency officers, individuals at rival media, and Nicaraguan tax and authorized consultants. They supply the fullest portrayal but of how Canal 8 got here below the Ortegas’ management and the way the household went on to make use of price range and tax legal guidelines to squeeze rival media and tighten their very own grip on energy.
The workplace of the president did not return calls or emails from Reuters looking for remark for this report. Murillo, who’s now vp in addition to authorities spokeswoman, did not reply to separate requests for remark. Juan Carlos, Rafael and different Ortega kin named on this story did not reply, both. Canal 8 and different media properties run by the household did not reply to queries.
The clan’s media empire has crowded out voices against Ortega. “Canal 8 was an area the place totally different, impartial journalism was potential,” stated Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a outstanding journalist who left the station due to the acquisition. “It was a key transfer towards concentrating management.”
Because the media empire shores up the president’s energy, his authorities is steering massive sums of state cash into the properties managed by the household and its allies.
Over the previous two years, Nicaragua’s authorities purchased promoting price an estimated $59 million from the three largest TV channels owned or managed by the Ortega household, in accordance with information compiled by Media Guru, a consultancy that tracks media spending. The federal government spent an estimated $230,000, lower than 1% as a lot, at channels not affiliated with the Ortegas.
In one other profit for the Ortegas and their allies, at the very least two of their channels, in contrast to rival media, do not seem to have paid taxes lately, in accordance with beforehand unreported tax paperwork reviewed by Reuters.
Over the previous decade, Canal 8 hasn’t paid greater than $4 million in tax and curiosity it ought to have below Nicaraguan legislation, in accordance with the paperwork, a discovering supported by native tax consultants who examined the supplies for Reuters.
“They’ve created a system during which the cash comes out of the nationwide price range, runs via their holdings, and all stays of their pockets,” stated Alfonso Malespin, a media specialist on the College of Business Sciences in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital.
The media effort is a household affair.
Ortega has been aided by his spouse, Murillo. As soon as a poet, she is extensively thought-about the architect of the media technique. Their youngsters play key roles: Along with Juan Carlos and Rafael, 4 different Ortega Murillo youngsters run main media properties or maintain stakes in them.
The Ortega household’s media actions seem to violate a number of Nicaraguan legal guidelines, in accordance with native attorneys consulted by Reuters. By channeling state funds to family-controlled properties, the Ortegas flout laws that governs conduct and procurement by public servants, the attorneys stated.
As a result of among the acquisitions have been allegedly made partly via a three way partnership managed by Venezuela’s state-run oil firm, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, attorneys stated the purchases broke a legislation that forbids overseas possession of Nicaraguan media shops.
And by not paying taxes, the attorneys stated, Canal 8 could also be violating Nicaraguan tax legal guidelines – statutes that Ortega has used to confiscate belongings, together with studios and newsprint, from rival media. “If the rule of legislation have been revered right here, there can be clear prison and civil penalties, with individuals arrested and firms impounded,” Alberto Novoa, a former solicitor basic who reviewed the tax paperwork, instructed Reuters.
Political opponents, human rights activists, and overseas powers together with the US and the European Union say Ortega’s media may has made Nicaragua extra autocratic. State propaganda, they argue, was instrumental in serving to Ortega safe two re-elections, in 2011 and 2016, and climate a wave of bloody anti-government protests in 2018.
Greater than 300 individuals died throughout these protests, some killed by authorities snipers on rooftops. Police raided the newsrooms of rival media, arresting journalists and confiscating computer systems and different gear, whereas Murillo went on family-run broadcasters to decry demonstrators as “coup-plotters” and “terrorists.” Extra not too long ago, she has used the platforms to label impartial media “termites” and “extremists.”
In a press release earlier this yr, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated the assaults, “together with the usage of spurious income costs to shutter studios and seize gear, reveal that Ortega, together with Vice President Rosario Murillo, have an interest solely in prolonging their rule.”
The media technique has been cited by the US amongst abuses for which it has sanctioned members of the family and associates together with Murillo, Juan Carlos and Rafael, husband of Canal 8 proprietor Leets Marin. In a June assertion, the U.S. Treasury Division introduced sanctions in opposition to Juan Carlos for spreading “regime propaganda.”
Final yr, the Treasury accused Rafael of utilizing numerous firms, together with a series of state-run fuel stations, to launder cash and conceal household belongings. “Rafael Ortega is the important thing cash supervisor behind the Ortega household’s illicit monetary schemes,” it stated in a press release.
Nicaragua’s authorities seems unchastened.
The Nationwide Meeting, the nation’s pro-Ortega legislature, not too long ago handed legal guidelines that additional strain rival media. One invoice makes it a criminal offense for anybody to unfold “false” data through social media or in information shops. One other imposes jail sentences of as much as six years for anybody convicted of publishing data “not approved” by the federal government.
With such measures, opponents say, actuality has grow to be more and more distorted throughout the nation of greater than 6 million individuals. Nicaraguans will go to the polls once more subsequent yr. They’ll have a diminishing variety of impartial sources protecting the state of their nation, the second-poorest within the Americas after Haiti, and its management.
“It is the other of actuality,” says Gioconda Belli, a novelist and poet as soon as near Murillo. “It’s very Orwellian.”
“NEW AND BETTER WAYS OF COMMUNICATING”
Ortega, now 75, was as soon as an icon for leftist revolutionaries worldwide and a logo of hope for a Nicaraguan society lengthy torn by inequality. With Coke-bottle glasses and a bookish demeanor, he was chosen by colleagues as Sandinista chief after they toppled Anastasio Somoza, the final in a string of dictators, in 1979.
Ortega, Sandinista colleagues stated, appeared much less power-hungry than extra bold rivals on the time.
Nicaraguans elected Ortega president in 1984. He was suffering from financial and social issues, nevertheless, and voters denied him a second time period 5 years later. He remained Sandinista chief however spent the following 16 years within the opposition, failing thrice to return to the presidency.
For many of their first act, his spouse, Murillo, lay low.
The 69-year-old first girl, fluent in English and French, on the time was identified largely for mystical writings and her kaleidoscopic wardrobe. “Rosario had no affect within the ’80s and ’90s,” stated Victor Hugo Tinoco, a former Sandinista who served as United Nations ambassador and deputy overseas minister in Ortega’s first time period.
Extra not too long ago, Ortega has deployed Murillo’s communication abilities. Her media savvy, individuals acquainted with the couple stated, helped him remake his picture.
Ortega as soon as sported navy fatigues like these of Fidel Castro, his good friend and mentor; the leftie look gave solution to denims and Oxford shirts. The couple mended fences with the Catholic Church and businesspeople their get together as soon as antagonized.
In 2006, the transformation carried Ortega again to victory.
Upon his inauguration in January 2007, Ortega made Murillo his communications chief. She instructed aides the federal government ought to discover methods to publish information “uncontaminated” by important media, in accordance with a number of individuals acquainted with the discussions.
In a “Communications Coverage” assertion that February, Murillo criticized what she noticed as favoritism by earlier administrations and their follow of getting authorities businesses and state-owned corporations place adverts in pleasant main media. Ortega’s authorities, she wrote, would “search new and higher methods of speaking.”
Immediately, Ortega’s authorities started taking part in favorites of its personal, in accordance with journalists and media executives. It marketed with left-leaning newspapers and broadcasters and shunned shops it deemed important.
Murillo centralized the promoting budgets of all ministries and took full management of their communications, in accordance with former authorities officers concerned within the adjustments. She put Daniel Edmundo Ortega, one other of the couple’s 9 youngsters, answerable for Canal 4, a channel owned by Sandinista allies that he continues to handle.
Ortega’s return got here on the peak of the so-called “Pink Tide,” a wave of leftist victories that swept Latin America beginning across the flip of the century. Within the motion’s vanguard was Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan strongman, whose charisma and petro-dollar diplomacy impressed and financed like-minded leaders throughout the area.
In July 2007, the 2 nations introduced the creation of a three way partnership, Alba de Nicaragua SA, that will use Venezuelan oil funds to pay for infrastructure and social tasks in Nicaragua. The enterprise, identified regionally as Albanisa, was meant to start with $250 million in financing for a refinery west of Managua.
The refinery by no means began, however Venezuelan money flowed in.
The Worldwide Financial Fund, in a 2017 report, estimated that Nicaragua acquired as a lot as $3.2 billion from Venezuela earlier than the South American nation’s financial system imploded lately. Nicaragua’s personal central financial institution has stated the determine reached as a lot as $5 billion.
However neither authorities has ever given a full accounting of the financing or how Ortega spent the cash, which is equal to as a lot as a 3rd of Nicaragua’s annual financial output.
Spokespeople at Venezuela’s data ministry and PDVSA did not reply to Reuters requests for remark.
By 2008, Ortega’s household and shut associates had begun constructing what in the present day is a enterprise empire with belongings in power, safety and different sectors. Juan Carlos that yr launched Difuso Comunicaciones SA, an promoting company.
The company shortly attracted shoppers wanting to do enterprise with these in energy. Individuals acquainted with the advert company’s operations say it serves as a conduit for a lot of the federal government’s promoting. Difuso produces commercials for state tourism, the ports company, the electrical energy authority and different businesses, these individuals say, and locations the adverts on channels managed by the household.
Authorities paperwork reviewed by Reuters present that Difuso’s homeowners embrace Maria Luisa Mejia, who’s often referred to in Nicaragua as one in all first girl Murillo’s attorneys. One other Difuso proprietor is Nestor Moncada Lau, an advisor to President Ortega.
In 2018, the U.S. sanctioned Moncada for allegedly paying counter-demonstrators to conflict with protestors that yr and bribing different Nicaraguans to maintain them from opposing the federal government.
Mejia has by no means publicly addressed her reported position as Murillo’s legal professional. She did not reply to requests for remark for this story. Moncada, although extensively thought-about an in depth aide of Ortega, has by no means given an interview. Reuters was unable to achieve him.
When Juan Carlos took the reins at Canal 8, employees have been stunned by what abruptly appeared like a bottomless price range, in accordance with 5 former workers of the channel. He purchased trendy studio gear, they stated, and wooed rival journalists with good salaries. He despatched iPads and different items to the heads of advert businesses from which he hoped to win non-government enterprise.
Questions started circulating in Nicaragua in regards to the supply of the cash in Canal 8’s newly fats pockets. Rafael Paniagua, the Venezuelan then answerable for Albanisa, instructed a Managua newspaper in 2010 that Canal 8 was bought for roughly $10 million by the Nicaragua-Venezuela three way partnership. Paniagua left Nicaragua abruptly afterward and by no means returned.
Reuters was unable to find out how possession of the channel was transferred from Albanisa to Leets Marin. Paniagua could not be reached for remark.
Rodrigo Obregon, one other former Albanisa govt who retired in 2014, not too long ago supported Paniagua’s assertion. The Canal 8 acquisition, Obregon instructed Reuters in an interview, was a part of a plan by Ortega to duplicate Chavez’s technique of bringing the media below state management to “indoctrinate” the lots.
“They have been inquisitive about all of the radio and TV broadcasters they may purchase,” Obregon stated.
All through Ortega’s second and third phrases, his household took management of extra broadcasters, usually with shut associates as homeowners. Beneficiant compensation made jobs at these shops enticing for some journalists. The perks included discounted houses at backed housing developments, in accordance with 4 individuals acquainted with the advantages.
In alternate, Murillo anticipated reporters to toe the Sandinista line.
In 2011, Noel Miranda, a reporter at Radio Ya, a Managua station, requested Murillo at a press convention about allegations by native teachers that the federal government was rising autocratic. Radio Ya is owned by Entretenimiento Digital SA, an organization managed by Rafael Ortega, in accordance with beforehand undisclosed possession paperwork reviewed by Reuters.
Murillo seemed on the reporter’s identification card, stared him down, and ignored the query. The next day, Miranda stated, he wasn’t allowed again at work. The station did not renew the six-month contract he was on, and Miranda is now a reporter for a web-based information web site in Managua. “We knew there have been limits,” Miranda instructed Reuters.
Miranda’s account was substantiated by a number of former colleagues. Executives at Radio Ya and Entretenimiento Digital did not reply to emails and cellphone calls from Reuters for remark.
That very same yr, the Ortegas launched a brand new tv station, Canal 13, managed by three different Ortega Murillo youngsters: Camila, Maurice and Luciana. One of many channel’s homeowners, in accordance with authorities paperwork reviewed by Reuters, is Mejia, the legal professional who is also part-owner of Difuso, the promoting company.
Three years later, in 2014, Maurice Ortega additionally started managing the information operations of Canal 2, one other main station owned by Ortega allies.
With extra platforms within the palms of the household, the Ortega authorities elevated state spending on promoting greater than tenfold, in accordance with information compiled by Media Guru, the promoting consultancy. The info, independently reviewed by Reuters, is predicated on market charges for promoting on channels throughout the nation.
Media Guru, which has places of work in Managua and elsewhere in Central America, declined to remark.
Between 2000 and 2010, in accordance with an individual acquainted with the information, Nicaragua’s authorities spent an estimated $2.6 million a yr on promoting. By 2019, the information present, the determine had soared to an estimated $29 million yearly.
Final yr, all however roughly $128,000, or 0.44% of that quantity, went towards promoting with Ortega household shops, in accordance with a Reuters calculation based mostly on the information. The adverts are bought by authorities businesses and by state-run firms just like the gas-station chain managed by Rafael Ortega.
At Canal 8 alone, promoting positioned by the state jumped from roughly $400,000 in 2009 to an estimated annual common of greater than $6 million over the previous decade, in accordance with the particular person acquainted with the information. Final yr, the federal government positioned adverts price an estimated $16.8 million with the channel, the information present.
By comparability, Canal 10, Nicaragua’s hottest station and a channel not managed by the Ortegas, in 2019 acquired lower than $9,000 in state promoting, in accordance with the information. Executives at Canal 10 did not reply to requests for remark.
The particular person acquainted with the Media Guru information confirmed the accuracy of the spending figures reported right here. Individually, three promoting executives in Nicaragua instructed Reuters the estimates are real looking.
With unequalled attain, the Ortega household’s messaging permeated the nation.
Murillo grew particularly seen, showing on family-run channels, usually day by day, and issuing orders about protection and editorial priorities via offspring on the helm of every broadcaster. “She is like the top of an octopus, her youngsters the tentacles,” stated one journalist who previously labored at one of many broadcasters.
In 2014, Sandinista legislators scrapped presidential time period limits. Two years later, Ortega received a fourth time period and Murillo, now his operating mate, the vice presidency. Ortega barred worldwide observers from the election.
In 2018, an Ortega plan to extend social safety contributions and decrease pension payouts sparked demonstrations.
At first, Murillo instructed state and allied shops to not cowl the unrest. “The order was to disregard every little thing,” stated Carlos Mikel Espinosa, then an editor at El 19 Digital, a state-controlled on-line information portal. Espinosa give up when the upheaval intensified and the federal government response grew violent.
International governments, the United Nations, and human rights teams denounced Ortega and Sandinista allies for reported killings, beatings, detentions and torture of many protesters. Police raided newsrooms of opposition media, seizing gear and provides wanted for publishing.
They arrested Miguel Mora, founding father of 100% Noticias, a Managua tv station, and shut its broadcasts. The federal government, Mora instructed Reuters, claimed the channel owed unpaid taxes, an assertion he denied. “It was a brutal assault to make us change our editorial line or to make us bankrupt,” stated Mora, who was launched however has since left the media enterprise.
Some shops managed by the Ortegas, in the meantime, are shortchanging the federal government on taxes, Reuters discovered.
Paperwork reviewed by Reuters from the Normal Income Directorate, Nicaragua’s tax assortment company, present that Canal 8 hasn’t paid taxes and curiosity amounting to about $4 million since 2010, the yr Juan Carlos took over. Canal 4, the Sandinista channel managed by Daniel Edmundo Ortega, owes about $380,000 in again taxes, the paperwork present.
Nicaragua’s tax company did not reply to requests for remark.
It is not clear why the taxes have gone unpaid or whether or not the federal government has sought to gather them. Tax specialists who reviewed the paperwork instructed Reuters each stations are in clear violation of Nicaraguan tax legislation. “Every other firm would have already been seized,” one of many consultants stated.
Contemplate the case of Canal 12, a non-public tv station owned by Mariano Valle, a Managua businessman. Valle has sought to maintain his channel impartial, and its journalists and on-air friends have criticized Ortega insurance policies.
In September, Ortega’s authorities stated the channel owes about $800,000 in unpaid taxes. A choose, pending ongoing litigation, approved the state to grab the station’s places of work and vehicles, and Valle’s residence, and maintain them if the channel loses in court docket.
The channel in a press release referred to as the strikes “arbitrary and unlawful.” In September Valle instructed a neighborhood radio station, “we do not owe something.” He did not reply to requests for remark.
Eduardo Enriquez, editor of La Prensa, the final massive impartial newspaper nonetheless working in Nicaragua, instructed Reuters that in the course of the protests, tax authorities used their energy to dam imports of newsprint and ink.
The suffocating attain of pro-Ortega propaganda, Enriquez stated, means La Prensa and the handful different impartial shops are working in a “information desert.” If the Ortegas stay in energy, he predicts, “impartial media will not survive.”