On This Day

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A still image from the ABC footage.

On This Day: Nicaraguan Soldiers Kill ABC Reporter

June 20, 2009 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On June 20, 1979, international correspondent Bill Stewart was shot and killed by Nicaraguan government forces as he was reporting from Managua.

“A Murder in Managua”

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Stewart was covering the Nicaraguan civil war, described as “one of the most dangerous assignments in journalism,” by Time magazine. For the previous 19 months, the corrupt and dictatorial regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle had been battling the Sandinistas, a leftist rebel group.

The Somoza family, in power for over 40 years, had been accused by global watchdog organizations of human rights violations, such as usurping international aid intended for earthquake victims, reported findingDulcinea.

Bill Stewart was mindful of his environment. As he approached an outpost of the Nicaraguan National Guard, Stewart was holding a white flag and documentation of press credentials issued by the Nicaraguan government, Time reported.

Stewart fell to his knees after one of the soldiers on duty lifted his rifle. The officer on guard instructed the reporter to lie down, and shot Stewart behind his right ear. According to Time, the soldiers also killed Stewart’s interpreter, Juan Francisco Espinoza. ABC’s camera crew caught the gruesome scene on tape.

The assassination struck a final blow to the Somozas’ already waning international support.

The United States had supported the regime as a buffer against Communism in Central America, but after Stewart’s murder President Jimmy Carter formally withdrew support for Nicaragua’s ruling family.

On July 17, 1979, less than a month after Stewart’s death, Somoza resigned as president. The Sandinistas took over the country a day later. Somoza flew to Miami to seek refuge but was denied entry into the United States. He was assassinated in Paraguay in September 1980.

Later Developments: Somozas, Sandinistas and the Contras

President Ronald Reagan authorized the CIA to fund and train guerrilla groups working to depose the leftist military government established by the Sandinistas in 1979, after the overthrow of the Somoza regime, reported findingDulcinea. The CIA-funded counterrevolutionary guerrillas were known as “Contras.” News of the CIA’s covert work with the Contras leaked to the media in 1982. In 1984, Congress adopted the Boland Amendment, banning further support of the Contras.

Opinion & Analysis: War correspondents give their all in the name of the news

President Jimmy Carter said of Stewart’s death, “Journalists seeking to report the news and inform the public are soldiers in no nation’s army. When they are made innocent victims of violence and war, all people who cherish the truth and believe in free debate pay a terrible price,” reported the American Presidency Project Web site.

Bob Steele, a journalism ethics scholar at the Poynter Institute, writes that every time he hears of war correspondents getting killed in the line of duty, that he is reminded of Stewart’s fate. “Let us honor those journalists who give the ultimate sacrifice for their profession and for the public they serve. They have shown their devotion to duty in the face of grave danger,” he writes.

Related Topics: Roberto Clemente, Bob Woodruff

All-star Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente was killed in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972, en route to delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. The 6.5 magnitude tremor claimed between 5,000 and 10,000 lives. Reports that the Somoza regime was seizing international aid prompted Clemente to fly to the country to personally oversee relief efforts, according to findingDulcinea.

In 2006, Bob Woodruff, anchor for ABC’s “World News Tonight,” and cameraman Doug Vogt were traveling with the U.S. 4th Infantry Division as part of a convoy that was hit by an explosive device. According to Mediabistro, Woodruff underwent surgery and was in a coma for 36 days following the attack.
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