While Nicaraguan soldiers and rebel guerrillas stalk one another in the mountains, another battle has been joined over how newspaper and television reports depict the U.S.-backed attacks against the Sandinista government.
The revolutionary government has mounted a new effort to enlist support from the U.S. media, naming a special troubleshooter to smooth the way for correspondents trying to reach remote trouble zones and setting up a press center in the Managua Intercontinental Hotel, where most visiting journalists stay.
The steps to facilitate reporters' work reflect a widespread view among Nicaraguan officials that the U.S. press was an ally in the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and that it again can serve the interests of the Sandinistas in the current fight against what is seen from here as a U.S.-run campaign to unseat the revolutionary government.
The effort also flows from concern within the Sandinista leadership that the press recently has become a willing vehicle for an attempt by the Reagan administration and the counterrevolutionary movement to depict the stepped-up clashes of recent months as a broadening popular insurrection against the Sandinistas.
"We want you to go wherever you want to go," said the new press aide, Tourism Minister Herty Lewites. "We have nothing to hide."
Defense Minister Humberto Ortega has given two news conferences in the past two weeks to explain the military situation and denounce U.S. support for the rebel forces.
Concerned Sandinista officials noted that recently for the first time, U.S. news agencies were relaying rebel battle communiques and reports of captured villages--which turned out to be false--broadcast by the rebels' September 15 Radio in Honduras. Also for the first time, the rebels took reporters on tours from Honduras to their redoubts inside Nicaragua.
This coincided with wide coverage of statements by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, who sought to portray the fighting as an uprising by the people. When Washington-based correspondents quoting U.S. officials began reporting the fall of villages in Matagalpa province--the same battles reported on the guerrilla radio--Sandinista officials expressed concern over what they called "a disinformation campaign."
"Oh, it's you," one Sandinista official said when called by a correspondent friend. "I was wondering whether we still had any friends in the international press. When can you come over?"
The press has played a key role here for some time on both sides of the effort by anti-Sandinista Nicaraguans to drive the country's current rulers from power. In talks with Sandinista officials, U.S. newspapers and magazines appear to be an important source of information about U.S. involvement in the effort, its command structure and leaders and Honduras' role as a haven and base area for the commandos.
Time magazine's recent story on the war, detailing Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. military aid to the guerrillas, was page-one news in the pro-government newspapers of Managua. Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto read from the Time article in a news conference Thursday as proof of U.S. complicity. Newsweek, which did a similar article last fall, has repeatedly been cited by Sandinista officials complaining about Honduras.
But for all the willingness to help correspondents, the government efforts have not made all visiting journalists happy. Pressed to issue passes that would allow reporters to roam at will, Lewites insisted instead on providing military escorts and government vehicles to negotiate roadblocks and the rough roads to reach the areas where clashes are taking place.
Inevitably, the correspondents' priorities did not turn out be those of the military escorts. Just as inevitably, more correspondents wanted to leave immediately for the trouble zones than could fit into the vehicles available to the financially strapped Nicaraguan government.
At one point high in the Nueva Segovia hills, for example, three U.S. correspondents pressed their escorting lieutenant to head for a spot where, according to military reports, a clash was under way. The young officer, cradling his AK47 assault rifle in his arms, at first pleaded concern for the reporters' safety.
Pressed harder, he said he also felt it was not worth his life or those of his men to try to satisfy the journalists' curiosity about what was going on down the road.