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Wednesday, 20 March 1985
Page: 479

Senator BOLKUS(12.37) —Towards the end of February this year, the world would have seen comments coming from the United States Administration, particularly from President Reagan, announcing that Administration's new policy in respect of the Central American country of Nicaragua. Press reports quoted the President as wanting 'to remove the present structure' of the Nicaraguan Government. He went on to say that he would press Congress to renew aid to Nicaraguan 'freedom fighters' and that it was American Administration policy 'to remove the present structure in Nicaragua', a structure which:

. . . is a communist totalitarian state. It is not a government chosen by the people.

It is surprising to read such comments. I wish in my contribution today to speak on the situation in Nicaragua, which I visited in January this year. As to the background to the country, I wish to do little else but make three points. The first is that the United States has claimed Central America to be within its sphere of domination for at least the last 160 years. As a consequence, there has been a massive economic drain from that region, and profits have been siphoned off to American companies operating in that region. Particularly in respect of Nicaragua, the world knows full well that Somozan rule over the last 60 years or so has meant that the people there have been oppressed, have had little to live on and have had their civil liberties and rights taken away from them consistently and continually over that period, to the extent that, towards the end, it was intolerable for the world to allow the Somozan Government to remain in power in Nicaragua.

How can President Reagan deliver a policy such as he has in recent days, despite the reality of the situation and the reality that Nicaragua is, of all Central American countries, nothing like the picture that he presents? He can do so primarily because of the one-sided media sources coming out of that country. I wish to dwell on that by way of background to my discussion on the situation in Nicaragua.

Let us look at a couple of instances of media reports of activities in that country. We can compare the 1982 El Salvador election with the 1984 Nicaraguan election. The media has highlighted claims put forward by the United States Administration that Nicaraguan polling was a sham. It can do that, despite claiming that the El Salvador election was legitimate, because of the emphasis of the media networks in that country. First of all, 700 journalists covered the El Salvador election but only a very small number covered the Nicaraguan election. At the same time, much of the news reporting coming out of Nicaragua focused on the parties that were not participating in that election. In fact, most articles noted prominently that Arturo Cruz was not on the ballot. However, in discussing the El Salvadoran election, they did not mention that the opposition leader was not permitted to participate.

I turn to the question of Press censorship during the pre-election period. Stories coming out of Nicaragua stress the fact that in that period there was some Press censorship. Stories about the El Salvadoran election, however, rarely noted that there was no opposition Press in that country and that what opposition editors and reporters there were had been murdered or had their plants bombed. The Press reports also discussed attempts by guerrillas to disrupt voting. In El Salvador much emphasis was placed on raids by guerillas and attacks aimed at disrupting voting. In contrast, during the election period and thereafter in Nicaragua that sort of information was not prominent in news reports. We have a situation in which, deliberately or otherwise, slanted media reporting has been coming out of Central America and the Administration is able to make these sorts of claims.

While I was there this media slant was highlighted when I witnessed an event in Managua. Belgian Press reporters had spent some time in the northern part of Nicaragua and had had the opportunity to film the slaughter of nine people-seven women and two children-by the Contras. It was pretty graphic film, horrific in many ways. It was film that the National Broadcasting Company Inc. bought from the Belgian film crew but, although it was made available to Australian media sources, the film was shown neither in the United States nor within Australia. It is dramatic film which shows what President Reagan's 'freedom fighters' are doing to the people, the campesinos, in northern Nicaragua. It is film which the networks, despite their control over it and access to it, have chosen not to use. The policy espoused by the United States Administration is one that should be questioned. It should be questioned on grounds of morality and on grounds of hypocrisy.

I turn to the situation of civil rights in Nicaragua, a situation which forms the basis of the opposition of the United States Administration to the Sandinista Government. When one assesses the situation of civil rights, one must look at factors such as censorship, the role of oppositions, the role of the churches, the role of trade unions, and at assessments made by bodies such as the International Committee for the Red Cross or Americas Watch. I had the opportunity to discuss with opposition people in Nicaragua the Government's policy and how they could survive under it. At the outset I wish to make the point that it was an opportunity which would be very difficult to exercise in surrounding countries in the region. I met the editor of La Prensa, the opposition newspaper in Managua, Jamie Chamorro, and one of his editorial board. They stressed-it is a point that we should take note of when considering that country-that they felt there was censorship in the country and that sometimes it was excessive. They recognised that often it related to external threats and that when the fabricated Soviet MiG scare hit the world news and the domestic news in Nicaragua towards the end of last year, there was an increase in censorship. They acknowledged that much censorship was related to international situations such as that and to security needs. However, they pressed the point that, despite the fact that some censorship could be claimed to be legitimate on those grounds, they felt that in any event it was excessive.

Sitting suspended from 12.45 to 2 p.m.