Little Bits of History

Tragedy in Nicaragua

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 20, 2015
William Stewart in 1963

William Stewart in 1963

June 20, 1979: William Stewart is killed. Bill was born in West Virginia in 1941 and had graduated from Ohio State University in 1963. He eventually was hired by ABC News after already working as a foreign correspondent. He had covered the Iranian Revolution in February 1979 and was sent to Nicaragua to cover the fighting going on there between the American-backed Somoza dictatorship and the Sandinistas. On June 19, the newspaper Novedades had run an editorial describing foreign journalists as “part of the vast network of Communist propaganda”. On this day, the Nicaraguan Guardia (the National Guard, the main force of President Somoza) had a road block set up.

Stewart and his crew were in a clearly marked press van going through the eastern slums of the capital city when they came to the roadblock. Juan Francisco, a 26 year old interpreter, and Stewart got out of the van and approached the barricade. Stewart presented his official press credentials which should have given them safe passage since they were issued by the office of Somoza. When they were still several yards away, inside the van cameraman Jack Clark began filming. One of the guards separated the two approaching men. Francisco was killed off camera. Stewart was told to kneel, then to lie face down. He was kicked in the ribs and then the guard stepped back and shot him behind his right ear, killing him instantly.

The van escaped. The driver, another local later claimed the killer had commented, “I’m sure he’s no journalist. He’s a dog.” When it was realized the guards had killed an American journalist, they were ordered to report it was a Sandinista sniper. Stewart’s body was recovered and sent home for burial. Along with the body, the filming of the execution was also shipped back to the US. All three major networks showed the gruesome spectacle for several days. Millions in the US were shocked and began to demand withdrawal of support for the Somoza regime. President Jimmy Carter condemned the act.

The Guard brought in the commander of the roadblock, Corporal Lorenzo Brenes. He claimed he was not responsible and that the man who had killed the journalist was someone called Private Gonzales. There was no private named Gonzales. The mythical Gonzales had supposedly reported before he disappeared that he had to kill the man because he was “trying to run away” even though the film did not support this accusation. Since the entire nation soon fell into chaos, there is no way to know if anyone was ever brought to justice for the execution. Somoza fled Nicaragua on July 17 and his regime was overthrown on July 19, 1979. The Sandinista junta took over control of the country.

Being a famous print journalist is like being the best-dressed woman on radio. – Robin Williams

The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations. – Joseph Pulitzer

Going to where the silence is. That is the responsibility of a journalist: giving a voice to those who have been forgotten, forsaken, and beaten down by the powerful. – Amy Goodman

If you’re a good journalist, what you do is live a lot of things vicariously, and report them for other people who want to live vicariously. – Harry Reasoner

Also on this day: Lizzie Borden Took an Axe – In 1893, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of murder.
Fort William – In 1756, the fort was attacked and 146 prisoners taken – the Black Hole of Calcutta.
Communication is Key – In 1963, a hot line was set up between the US and USSR.
Great Seal of the United States – In 1782, the Great Seal design was adopted.
Toasting Ed – In 1948, Ed Sullivan came to the small screen.

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