The repression exercised by the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship against the press has provoked a massive exodus of professionals who have reconfigured their newsrooms to continue reporting.
By Sol Acuña via CTXT
Every morning in this Spain of terraces in the sun, the newsstands are stacked with newspapers in which sagas of almost rockstar journalists sign their columns and chronicles. The Iberian idiosyncrasy has at all hours in every bar a newsreel or a chat show of journalists debating, attacking each other with data and talking over each other. Thus, the portrait of a functional democracy is a citizen with his coffee, the newspaper of his choice and a good front page with a picture of a politician inside Congress. This was also once the image of Nicaragua, despite its historical political instability. Four years afterwards the protests of 2018, everything got worse. Now it is dictatorship time again, and non-official journalists can only take one of two options: red pill for exile or blue pill for jail.
To report Nicaragua means risking one’s physical integrity. In 2020 alone, PCIN registered 1,678 attacks against journalists and independent media. Last year that figure rose to 1,980 attacks, according to information gathered by the Human Rights Collective Nicaragua Nunca +, based in San José, Costa Rica. Among them, the murder of journalist Miguel Angel Gahona while he was carrying out a Facebook Live. The UN Human Rights Council will now investigate possible human rights abuses in the Central American country.
The criminalisation of journalism
“Last minute, 100% Noticias is being surrounded, assaulted by riot police! Please, this is an alert! Help us tweet, this is an emergency, they want to take our director Miguel Mora prisoner”, warned Lucía Pineda Ubau on air. These were the last reports that the then head of press and current director of 100% Noticias broadcast from the channel’s master control. The media outlet was raided by paramilitaries and pro-Ortega police on 21 December 2018 and Lucía, Miguel Mora and his wife, journalist Verónica Chávez, were arrested and taken to El Chipote prison.
Little by little journalism uncomfortable for the Ortega Murillo regime has been cornered and deprived of access to government press conferences or inside polling stations to cover general elections. Media outlets such as 100% Noticias or Confidencial, run by journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, were raided and all their material confiscated, including their offices. Practically its entire staff has gone into exile in Costa Rica, which has already received more than 100,000 requests for refuge from Nicaraguans.
“Not even the day they stole everything did we stop publishing,” says Iván Olivares, an economics journalist at Confidencial, proudly. The current Nicaraguan reality is covered by reporters who sneak incognito into markets and other public places from where they send their unsigned reports to media outlets outside the country. Nicaraguan journalism exerts resistance from the inside out and the government’s hijacking of free information has led to the emergence of independent media outlets in ever-increasing exile.
The majority of journalists have gone into exile in Costa Rica, around 100, according to figures from the Observatory of the Organisation of Independent Journalists and Communicators of Nicaragua (PCIN). About a dozen have taken refuge in Spain, although several have also migrated to the United States or El Salvador. The dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo has economically stifled, criminalised and viciously persecuted the press with greater intensity since the civil insurrection of 2018. However, this has not prevented international recognition of the work of Nicaraguan journalism in these times of adversity, as in the case of Divergentes, winner of this year’s Ortega y Gasset journalism prize.
“I shouted to him [Miguel] from cell to cell: ‘Let’s close with a flourish: reporting with our boots on! I felt the same emotion as a journalist when he gives a scoop, even though I was a prisoner,” laughs Lucía from exile in Costa Rica. Miguel Mora, for his part, swapped journalism for politics and is now one of the political prisoners convicted in one of the express trials that have been taking place in recent weeks. He faces up to 15 years in prison.
“I felt the same emotion as a journalist when he gives a scoop, and I was imprisoned!
In Nicaragua, 44 years ago, the legendary director of the daily La Prensa, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, known as the “martyr of public freedoms”, was assassinated by the Somoza dictatorship. Today, this newspaper, a symbol of journalistic resistance in Nicaragua, has had its paper confiscated by the government until it has had to suspend its print edition. Three of its directors are in prison. The same happened to El Nuevo Diario, the second-largest newspaper in the country, which was forced to close down definitively in 2019, after almost 40 years in business, “due to economic, technical and logistical difficulties that make its operation unsustainable”, according to a communiqué.
Thus, the progressive hardening of repression materialised in the raids on the media and the imprisonment of Lucía Pineda and Miguel Mora were the turning point that unleashed a mass exodus of journalists. “At the beginning, it was unthinkable that they would touch a journalist, we never expected them to dare to do so much,” says Edith Pineda, former editor-in-chief of El Nuevo Diario and current director of Despacho 505, the first Nicaraguan media outlet founded in exile.
New information technologies
“We lost everything, but not the will to do journalism,” says Lucía. After six months in prison and long periods in solitary confinement, he went into exile in Costa Rica and started again. “Too long I was doing nothing because I was in prison. The best therapy I can have is to do my work,” she says enthusiastically. Together with her, journalists from Nicaragua Actual, a Costa Rican-born media outlet, organised themselves organically and rented a common space in San José in order to continue reporting. How did they do it? With Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Google, Canva, WordPress, their mobile phones, and modest cameras.
Journalists face a serious problem: they have no sources. People will only talk if they are guaranteed anonymity.
Although new technologies have made it possible for independent journalism to continue to exist, journalists inside and outside Nicaragua face a serious problem: they have no sources. “We are talking about sources at all levels and in all areas: social, economic, academic… people only talk if we guarantee anonymity, but it is very difficult to exercise fully circumspect journalism if we don’t cite names,” laments Sergio Mesa, director of the media outlet La Mesa Redonda. Even so, he overcomes adversity: “The people of Nicaragua are suffering a lot and it is our obligation as journalists to maintain the information link with them,” he says.
By the time the protests broke out, La Mesa Redonda had already made the digital leap. They were shut down at the radio station where they broadcast their debate and talk show when the media outlet highlighted the high abstention rate in the 2016 general elections. Suddenly, they became intolerable to the dictatorship and the exclusion of independent media from advertising packages stifled many. However, thanks to training in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) offered by the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, they were able to become digitally literate much earlier than other media. The foundation also paid its price for supporting journalism. It was canceled by the regime and its director, Cristiana Chamorro, was recently sentenced to eight years in prison in a speedy trial. Sergio went into exile on 20 June 2021, and currently rents a room in San José from where he claims to practice his craft without earning any income.
Ad Honorem Journalism
The founders of Despacho 505 know what it is like. They do not receive a salary from their digital media and do other jobs unrelated to their profession to make ends meet. Edith, a journalist with more than 15 years of experience, works at Leroy Merlin during the day and dedicates the rest of her time to Despacho 505. Together with her colleagues, also in exile, José Denis Cruz and Uriel Velásquez, they started their medium “without pretension, without funding and on the spur of the moment”. Their beginnings can be summed up in the generosity of a priest, his old computer, and many hours of YouTube tutorials to set up their website. “The first year we lived on Nicaraguan time: we went to bed at six in the morning and woke up at three in the afternoon”, says Edith.
Despite living in Madrid, Edith does not consider Despacho 505 to be a “medium for exiles”. This sentiment is shared by all the interviewees in this report, who say that their host countries are just a place to sleep, but that their focus remains on Nicaragua, where a network of “ground-breaking” collaborators feeds the information broadcast by these media from exile. “The colleagues who are there keep a very low profile, they don’t sign their stories and we are careful not to expose them because we know that the danger now is much higher than before,” he explains. But how long can you risk your life doing journalism in times of dictatorship, with all the doors closed or from exile?
The response is clear for Edith: “only the day the regime falls, otherwise it would be giving in, and we are not willing to do so”. Others, such as Iván Olivares, reflect on the inexorable impact of exile on the craft of journalism. “We are writing about a country that is falling behind in time. In a year’s time I’m not sure if I’ll be able to continue writing about this Nicaragua efficiently. You can’t write about a reality that no longer is,” he laments.
Paradoxically, in today’s Nicaraguan journalism, the approach to the facts and the search for truth are so hampered by Ortega’s rule that the traditional competitiveness between media has disappeared. “Collaborative journalism has emerged, the war for the scoop has moved to another level”, Sergio stresses. For Edith, “there is a lot of complicities because we all have the same objective”, which is why alliances between them are indispensable. “Many of us journalists who are outside have a WhatsApp group and what one of us publishes is immediately uploaded to all the media,” confesses Iván.
Although, beyond the vocation, perhaps the most important difficulty is “maintaining emotional equanimity”, as Sergio says. It is almost a mandate since when night falls, the work ends and the computers are switched off, hyperconnectivity undermines the deep grooves in the loneliness that haunt the lives of these “martyrs of public freedoms” in the 21st century Nicaragua.