With 24 microphones on the court table, the defendant ringed by TV cameras, and more than 150 journalists packing the courtroom, Monday's opening of Eugene Hasenfus's hearing had the appearance less of a trial than of a media show. Indeed, since the captured American was shot down over southern Nicaragua on Oct. 5, reporters have been accorded a role in Nicaraguan affairs that has surprised veteran Managua correspondents, used to more secrecy and mistrust.
One reporter described the series of press conferences and selective leaks, building Nicaragua's case against Washington day by day, as ``fact torture,'' akin to Chinese water torture, for information-hungry foreign journalists. But officials deny any attempt to manage the news that has stayed on front pages for weeks.
``What really happened is that we have a great truth,'' says one government spokesman. ``There has been no fabrication, no management.''
``I give the Sandinistas generally high marks in their dealings with the press, but it is what they are working with that makes it exciting,'' one Western diplomat says.
That excitement is shared by both newsmakers and newsbreakers. Officials and foreign journalists say their interests thus happen to coincide, raising questions about the way the story has been handled.
Under normal circumstances, Managua is not known as a foreign correspondent's paradise. Reliable information is often hard to come by, and access to any government official is complicated by a tortuous and tedious process of application forms and official press offices. The deadline is not a widely appreciated concept.
But for the Hasenfus affair, the doors have been thrown open especially widely for a few US reporters who have been given particularly newsworthy nuggets.
``They [the Sandinistas] have been much more adept than usual at using the major American media to present their case,'' says Tim Golden, a Miami Herald correspondent. ``They have been disclosing intelligence information that they are normally very proprietary about and getting the stuff to people on time.''
While general information has been available to all reporters, the government has used especially sensitive material -- such as evidence that the plane's copilot had flown in and out of US government installations -- with a subtlety that recalls Washington's own use of leaks.
A handful of US reporters, representing the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, and the Associated Press, have been offered privileged access to documents taken from the plane, and they have made the running on the story.
``I have been amazed by the complete control of the [government's] ruthlessness in deciding who they wanted to talk to,'' says one senior American reporter.
``But they have not done anything that the US government does not do when it wants a story to get out,'' notes James LeMoyne of the New York Times. ``And the reporters who have been leaked to have been given quite a lot of opportunities to double-check what they have been shown,'' he adds. ``I don't see any deception here.''
Officials say they have cultivated US reporters because Hasenfus is an American, ``and this is a US story.''
An official says, ``There is a tendency toward the US press because they are the press informing the US people, and they are the people we want to tell the truth to. Part of this war is disinformation in the US.''
The government handling of information through selected US journalists has angered many European reporters. ``The Hasenfus case highlights a trend in the Sandinista government,'' a European journalist laments. ``They are playing politics with the press, using the press in terms of what they need politically speaking.
``So obviously the advantage lies with the counterpart in the political game -- the press from the US,'' she says.
But one US reporter who enjoys that advantage and was briefed on sensitive documents resents being blamed: ``I'm not a culprit, I'm a mere instrument.''
That point was reinforced by a government official who explained that among the favored reporters, the Sandinistas picked those with a background of investigating contra activities in El Salvador and elsewhere, who were already especially knowledgeable about the issues raised in the captured documents. Mr. LeMoyne, for example, ``is able to deal with the information and round it out more adequately,'' the official said.
While there is no suggestion of improper collusion between reporters and officals over the Hasenfus affair, it is clear that the two sides' interests have run parallel. ``It's not our job to do their job, but it is our job to find out what's going on,'' says one US TV network employee. ``And in this case, that probably helps them.''