While freedom of expression is cherished as an inviolable right in developed countries, in Nicaragua it seems just another chess piece in the game of politics played by the Nicaraguan government and the opposition. Indeed, since censorship under a six-year-old state of emergency was lifted Jan. 15, all of Nicaragua's media appear to have interpreted their freedom as a license to revile their ideological foes to the greatest degree possible.
Led by the flagship paper La Prensa, the opposition media hurl invectives at the Sandinista government, searing it for everything from potholes to the latest crackdown in the Soviet Union. The official and pro-government media return the volley by referring to their opponents regularly as the voice of the Central Intelligence Agency, and launching personal attacks on the owners and editors.
Indeed, this country's unruly, antagonistic polyglot of three dailes, 33 national radio, and two TV stations, and about a half-dozen journals and magazines is the most dynamic in the region.
But opposition journalists say that the government has the power to sanction them, while pro-Sandinista media enjoy official protection, subsidies, and in the case of television, a complete monopoly. The opposition has been pressing for its own TV station, so that it can compete with the government stations. (The contras have made this a condition for continuing peace talks with the government.)
The power to stifle opposition media was exercised in April when the government stopped La Prensa's supply of newsprint. The government charged the paper with mismanaging its limited supply.
Most recently, on May 14, the news directors of four radio stations were summoned to the Interior Ministry and warned they would be punished if they did not curtail their vituperation.
``She said we were violating the General Provisional Law [of Media Communications],'' said Auxiliadora Etchegoyen, news editor of the Roman Catholic Church-sponsored Radio Catolica, referring to Lieut. Lizette Torres, head of the direction of media communications. ``She told us, for example, we could no longer report on [military] recruitment or use the term `economic crisis''' in broadcasts.
The general provisional law of media communications is the legal device by which the government can muzzle the media.
A summary paragraph of the law states: ``[As] the liberty of the press is a conquest of the Nicaraguan people, all communication media ought to struggle [with the certainty of their information] for national unity, defense of the nation, and consolidation of the revolution.''
The opposition media's reporting on Nicaragua's highly controversial military draft and the country's persistent economic woes ``can be interpreted as violating this law,'' said one South American diplomat, because of the often near hysterical tone of the news reports. ``They have no sure way of knowing what is permitted and what crosses the line.''
[Such an ambiguous environment was demonstrated when Lieutenant Torres took the four news directors to task. No written restrictions were issued ``she just told us what was no longer allowed, and that we could be closed if we did not comply,'' said Ms. Etchegoyen. ``So far we are complying, yes.''] Indeed, Decree 511 is exactly the sort of restrictions which irk the Reagan administration on the subject of freedom of expression here.
With such decrees on the books the Sandinistas cannot be ``in accordance with the promises ... they made in those agreements,'' said Steve Johnson, a spokesman for the State Department's Central American desk, referring to last August's regional peace accord and the March 23 Sandinista-contra truce. Both documents commit the Sandinistas to respect unrestricted freedom of expression.
Mr. Johnson also cited the government's harassment of opposition media - unexplained power cuts, telephones which need months to be repaired - as further signs of the government shirking such commitments.
But more importantly, he said, is that with one official paper, one utterly loyal independent paper, by far the largest national radio network, and state control of the two TV stations, there is ``a complete media hegemony on the part of the government'' against which the opposition must compete.
A key point, one Western diplomat here said, in explaining the opposition media's vehemence is that ``they are battling the perceptions [the government] media make by creating their own perceptions, and that justifies their distortions'' of the truth.
But for Roger S'anchez, a Sandinista supporter and editor of the irreverent humor magazine ``Semana C'omica,'' the opposition media deploys the freedom of expression which does exist here to undermine the revolution. Which is where, he said, the line is drawn.
``There are no innocents here,'' Mr. S'anchez said of the opposition's cry that it is being denied freedom of expression. ``...these people, they know what they are doing ... they want to destroy the revolution.'' And why, S'anchez asks, ``should we tolerate that when we are at war.''
Freedom of expression for the media, the South American diplomat said, ``is another weapon used in the ideological war'' fought in the cities of this highly polarized country. It is a war of words and ideas which parallels the military war currently at rest in the countryside.