On the day in March 1982 that the Sandinista government declared a state of emergency in Nicaragua, the official censor of the Sandinista government, Capt. Nelba Blandon, telephoned the editors of La Prensa and called them to an urgent meeting. When they arrived at her office, she informed them of the imposition of total censorship to protect the security of the state and to defend the popular Sandinista revolution against the aggression of "gringo imperialism." This meant, in effect, the censorship of ideology.
With these few words the censor announced that the intentions of the government were not just to suppress certain articles that could harm its image or that could represent a security threat to the Sandinista state, but to suppress the way of thinking of the editors who plan, produce and select the news content of the paper and who direct its orientation. This ideological censorship reverberates like a distant echo and at times is lost in forgetfulness, but today, after four years of this Kafkaesque censorship and the mental exasperation that it creates, Blandon's words have been turned into the most refined kind of tyranny. Orwell's prophecy of what 1984 would be like was on the mark.
Blandon could be accommodating and even jovial at times, but at other times she could be insulting and belligerent. She has an inflated ego, which makes her feel that she must completely control the way people express themselves, think and give their opinions in the Nicaraguan press. She often speaks in the first person with the authority of a little dictator, full of haughtiness. "I cannot permit you to put this in the paper," she says. Sometimes she suggests substituting an official government statement for something she has not allowed in the paper. She seems to be a fundamentally insecure person who depends on military-style orders of what should and should not be censored, how public figures should be referred to in stories and how headlines should be changed -- to the point that the editor finds himself in such a state of mental confusion and exhaustion that he is forced to think like the censor.
Press censorship in Nicaragua undermines the whole reason for having newspapers in the first place. The day editor who puts out La Prensa must ignore the element of time or the urgency of informing the public or of printing the latest news. His principal concern must always be to arrive as early as possible at the censor's office, for the censor determines when the paper is ready to be published and distributed. If the editor has an important meeting with his staff, the process of censorship will start later and the paper will be delayed.
On days when nothing special happens and the articles that have been submitted to the censor are totally innocuous and merit no suppression, some articles are nevertheless rejected. This is to show that the paper must be censored every day to maintain the discplinary measures imposed by the military.
Maintaining censorship is vital to the Sandinista regime. Only democratic governments endorsed by an ample popular base can support freedom of the press. This is the real reason, not the state of war, that there is censorship in Nicaragua.
Blandon abuses of her responsibilities by persecuting and harming La Prensa in three ways: She hurts the paper financially by not letting it publish on time, which damages its sales on the streets. She deprives La Prensa of its own initiative and style and forces it to conform to that of the Sandinistas. And finally, by letting the Sandinistas print their own version of the news, little by little La Prensa is converted into a newspaper with little attraction.
None of these three things has been achieved to the government's satisfaction, because of the courage and determination of those who produce La Prensa. They continue to try to do their work as if the situation were normal. This is the only way they can keep themselves from falling under the total mental domination of the censor and the Ministry of the Interior.
The editor is constantly forced to insert the word "contra" in each place where the international wires use "rebels" or "anti-Sandinistas." The censor does not allow the use of these words because she considers them too respectable. The rebel commander Eden Pastora must be labeled "the traitor" or his name cannot appear in the paper. The name of the many-time world boxing champion Alexis Arguello has been forever forbidden to appear in La Prensa because of his known sympathy for the rebels. The picture and name of Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, head of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, have also been prohibited because he has denounced the persecution of the church by the Sandinista regime in the presence of the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
This obsession with the cardinal reached such a point that it led to the censoring of a story about last year's World Series. La Prensa took a poll to see which of the teams in the series -- the St. Louis Cardinals or the Kansas City Royals -- was more popular in Nicaragua. The result of the poll was titled, "Nicaraguans: The Cardinals Will Be the Champions." The headline was censored: we were not allowed to print the words "cardinals" and "champions" together. We had to substitute "St. Louis" for "Cardinals."
After four years of censorship in Nicaragua, the daily life of La Prensa follows a suffocating routine in which all systems of logical thinking are stifled. Numerous employees must go to the office of the censor with photocopies of the pages. There they spend between 4 1/2 and six hours while the officials review the articles line by line and letter by letter. They even review the classified ads, which are sometimes censored. After they finish they hand the editors a notice called the "Resolution." Stamped on it and pertaining to specific articles are the phrases; "DO NOT PUBLISH," or "CHANGE HEADLINE," or "SUPPRESS PARAGRAPHS 1, 2, 3 and 5."
To change a headline the editor must think of one that will not be censored. He is forced, therefore, to think like the censor. Orders to change headlines are frequent and usually affect articles that are not favorable to the regime but that would not be suitable to censor. An example would be a declaration by Contadora that affects the government or an announcement by the Ministry of Industry that productivity has declined. The censors know that most readers read all of the headlines, but read only those articles that interest them. The headlines therefore must not reflect the bad news that may be in the article.
The censor often cuts the first paragraph of the article, leaving the informational content incomprehensible and obliging the editor to kill the story entirely.
The censor leaves out declarations and statements made by President Daniel Ortega and other national leaders when they are speaking outside of Nicaragua and contradict what they do and say in Nicaragua. But what is most improbable is that the censor sometimes censors herself. On Jan. 21, 1986, we received an interview with Nelba Blandon on censorship, by an AP correspondent named Eloy A. Aguilar. We tried to publish it under the headline: "Blandon Comments on Censorship," but the censor's decision was: "DO NOT PUBLISH." On Aguilar's next visit he asked Blandon why the interview, which he considered accurate, was not published. The censor answered: "Because the statements I made were for publication abroad, not for publication in Nicaragua."
Blandon was also censored, according to her, in a long article on Nicaragua in National Geographic Magazine in December 1985. The article cited Jaime Chamorro, director of La Prensa, as well as Blandon on the subject of censorship in Nicaragua. When the two met after the article had appeared, Chamorro refuted her declarations. She responded by saying: "I was censored." Censored? asked Chamorro. She answered: "They did not publish everything I said." The censor protects the "cooperators" or foreign "internationalists" who commit crimes against the Nicaraguan people. She intervenes on behalf of those people who give their support to the Sandinista regime and does not permit any references to criminal activity or bad behavior -- especially if they are Cubans.
Along with photocopies of every page of the paper we send the censor two pages of material that we call "stuffing" -- articles that can be substituted for censored stories. La Prensa has been unable to publish on 40 occasions because the censor could not find adequate material to substitute for censored stories. It is prohibited to leave any blank space on a page or in any other way give the impression that the paper has been censored.
On other occasions La Prensa itself has decided not to publish in order to protest the censorship of important articles, such as Pope John Paul II's letter to the bishops of Nicaragua and the pastoral letter written by all of Nicaragua's bishops during Holy Week.
After all of the necessary changes have been made Blandon again must see photocopies before the paper goes to press. At that point she may still demand changes before the order is given to publish. Only then can the editors and writers breathe. The paper has finally been approved. But on many days we are not allowed to publish until the night. On those days, the papers cannot be sold until the following day.
The censor also prohibits the distribution of censored material to friends of the paper, foreign correspondents, embassies or anyone else who shows interest. Censorship must be a completely private matter between the "jailkeeper," the Department of Censorship, and the "criminal," the newspaper La Prensa (which has already been in jail for four years) -- and the condemned, it appears, will be in prison forever.
Maintaining censorship is essential to the Sandinistas even though it damages the prestige they so badly want to maintain abroad. In response to international denunciations of censorship in Nicaragua, they maintain the lie that the exercise of censorship is limited strictly to matters of the military and state security.
The dilemma is clear: censorship is a poison that damages their image abroad. But they know that to lift it would result in an internal, deadly poison for which there can be no antidote. Freedom of the press would be the Sandinistas' death sentence.