US and contras find ally in Costa Rica's three major dailies. Critics say papers' editors are manipulating public opinion

In its battle for support in Central America, the United States has a powerful advocate: the Costa Rican press. Over the past five years, Costa Rica's three main dailies -- La Naci'on, La Republica, and La Prensa Libre -- have become unabashed supporters of President Reagan's economic and foreign policies, many Costa Rican say.

Through their articles and editorials, these privately owned papers promote the US-backed Nicaraguan rebels, Costa Rican militarization, International Monetary Fund programs, and most US State Department policies, these analysts say. The fear at these newspapers is that the leftist political system of its northern neighbor, Nicaragua, will spread into Costa Rica.

The Costa Rican government is officially neutral in the Central American conflict, though it admits reluctantly that its territory has been used by the rebels. It does not publicly admit that there are contra bases in northern Costa Rica.

Editors say they are not manipulating public opinion. They say the complaints are sour grapes from people who disagree with the newspapers' political views.

However, a wide array of people have criticized the press: President Oscar Arias S'anchez, several former presidents, Archbishop Roman Arrieta of San Jos'e, peace activists, academics, artists, intellectuals, and members of the legislature.

``The democratic system demands that its citizens and journalists comment, debate, and criticize the actions of its public figures,'' President Arias said shortly before his inauguration May 8. ``However, the democratic system suffers when its citizens and journalists guard silence [or] slant facts or words, thereby confusing public opinion.''

Of Costa Rica's Spanish-language newspapers, the only one that isn't editorially conservative is the University of Costa Rica's newspaper, La Universidad.

Two years ago, according to La Universidad editor Carlos Morales, then-US Ambassador Curtin Winsor indicated he would like to see La Universidad shut down. Mr. Winsor encouraged the creation of an alternative student publication, but the attempt failed because of lack of student cooperation, according to Mr. Morales.

Interviews with Costa Rican politicians and academics indicate that pro-US coverage is a result of several factors:

Scholarships to journalists. The United States Agency for International Development has awarded 21 Costa Rican journalists all-expense-paid six-week tours of various media centers in the US. Although AID is not usually involved in journalist training, it is giving the awards this year, for the first time, because it was recommended by the Kissinger Commission on Central America as a means to counteract similar Soviet programs.

Contra connections. According to many foreign correspondents and other observers, many newspaper reporters and editors reportedly are friends -- and some, advisers -- of United States-backed Nicaraguan contra leaders.

Alleged payoffs to reporters. Former contra leader Edgar Chamorro said last year that Central Intelligence Agency money was used to bribe journalists in Costa Rica and Honduras. Morales, former president of the Costa Rican Journalists' Union, claims that about eight journalists continue to receive such funding. When contacted in Washington, a CIA official said the agency had no response to these charges.

These factors inhibit citizens' freedom of information and curb public debate on major issues, says Gonzalo Ram'irez, a National University economist who was a member of the Committee for the Defense of Freedom of Information, a short-lived Costa Rican media watchdog organization that folded under media pressure last year.

``If you don't have cable television, a short-wave radio, or can't read English, you don't know what's really happening in Costa Rica,'' Mr. Ram'irez said. The major US newspapers and magazines are available in Costa Rica.

There is also one Costa Rican-based English-language paper, the Tico Times, which is editorially centrist to somewhat liberal.

``The problem is the people's right to know,'' Interior Minister Guido Fern'andez says. ``Are the newspapers consciously preventing them from knowing because it is against their [the newspapers'] self-interests?''

Yes, says La Universidad editor Morales.

His newspaper has reported several discrepancies in the coverage of La Naci'on.

Following a demonstration in front of the Nicaraguan Embassy last year, for example, La Universidad discovered that La Naci'on had published a doctored photograph that erased the insignia of the Free Costa Rican Movement paramilitary group from the shirts of some demonstrators.

The assistant director of La Naci'on, Alonso S'anchez, is the vice-president of The Free Costa Rica Movement, a right-wing civic group with a paramilitary branch.

When questioned about the photograph-tampering, Mr. S'anchez said it was the work of an individual at the paper and not a result of the newspaper's policy. He insisted that being an officer in a political group did not represent a conflict of interest with his profession.

``We try to be objective, especially in informational material,'' S'anchez said. ``But because we're human beings, it's difficult.''

Regarding coverage of Nicaragua, S'anchez says objectivity is difficult. ``We're convinced that the [Nicaraguan] regime is a threat to us.''

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