Investigating and reporting the truth
The resilience of journalism is nourished by the trust of the audience in the commitment of our reporters to stick to the truth
By Carlos F. Chamorro (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – CONFIDENCIAL was born in mid-June 1996, during the spring of freedom of expression in Nicaragua, in the last year of the government of my mother, former president Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.
The country was emerging from the swamp of political polarization inherited from the war, after overcoming the conflict of the “recompas”, “recontras” and “revueltos”. In 1994, the Military Code was agreed upon, clearing the way for the change of military command in the self-proclaimed National Army, and as of 1995, there was finally a glimpse of democratization on the horizon after the approval of the constitutional reforms. In this struggle to subordinate the politics of arms to civilian power and to consolidate the new institutions, journalists were witnesses and also protagonists of the democratic transition. The professionalization of the press and the flourishing of new media became some of the first fruits of the transition’s harvest.
The adventure of founding a new magazine was born from the vote of confidence of a small group of friends, intellectuals and outstanding professionals, whom I convinced to invest part of our savings, which did not exceed 7,000 dollars of seed capital, to launch CONFIDENCIAL with a three person editorial team: a journalist, an editor and the director. The first objective was to create a reliable information media outlet to fill the void of analysis and investigative journalism that existed in newspapers and television. The second, even more ambitious, was to create an influential publication to scrutinize power and promote public debate, to underpin the nascent democracy. At that time, we mistakenly believed that freedom of the press, political pluralism and tolerance were already State policies that would remain irreversible in the Nicaragua of the future.
Today, 25 years later, the new dictatorship of the 21st century confirms, on one hand, the failure of the transition that did not lead to the consolidation of democracy. And on the other hand, the perseverance of the independent press that has resisted all the aggressions of authoritarian power. CONFIDENCIAL reaches its 25th anniversary with its offices occupied by the police twice, and with an editorial staff in exile, doing journalism in resistance. A journalism that is nourished by the confidence of the audiences in the commitment of our reporters to stick to the truth, at any cost, and by their professional talent to continue telling stories, even under a totalitarian dictatorship that has tried to silence us by all means, without ever succeeding in confiscating journalism.
In the turbulent journey of this quarter of a century, between the authoritarian regression and the technological changes that revolutionized the press industry, opportunities also arose. They allowed us to transform CONFIDENCIAL into an innovative media outlet, focused on serving the diverse interests of our audiences, combining current news coverage with in-depth information and narrative journalism. The printed newsletter, which aspired to become a modern 80-page weekly magazine after five years, never achieved its goal. Very early on, we realized that there was an abundant potential readership, but not enough advertisers to sustain the publication and grow in a small market like Nicaragua. However, the technological revolution opened unsuspected ways to reach mass audiences, first through television, and later through the Internet and social networks, while maintaining the original objective of quality journalism.
Since 2010, when the private Ortega Murillo emporium, sheltered by the State and petrodollars from Venezuela, began to buy and co-opt democratic spaces in the media, CONFIDENCIAL, the weekly printed newsletter, became a digital newspaper, underpinned by a multimedia platform, integrating investigative journalism and the television programs Esta Semana and Esta Noche, and later Niú Magazine, all in the same newsroom. The result allowed us to grow among new audiences in Nicaragua and in the region, as a media outlet committed to transparency, the defense of human rights, and accountability of power.
In these 25 years, CONFIDENCIAL has investigated dozens of emblematic cases of public corruption, without ceasing to monitor the private powers. “Alemán’s superhighway”, “The double payroll and the mega-salaries of the State”, “The route of the FSLN electoral fraud in the municipal elections”, “The Alemán-Ortega pact and the distribution of the powers of the State”, “The illegal tax exoneration of the Pellas tower”, “Byron Jerez’s terrace in Pochomil with Mitch funds”, “The DGI director’s luxury cars”, “Arnoldo Alemán’s embezzled stash”, “Extortion in Tola and influence peddling in El Carmen”, “Emergency in the forest, the Granadillo mafia, and the depletion of Bosawas”, “The Walter-Gate: The fall of Walter Porras”, “Big businessmen and tax exonerations”, “The Cosep model and authoritarian corporatism”, “The dance of Venezuela’s petrodollars”, “Albanisa’s business piggy bank”, “The great scam of the interoceanic canal”, and “The rings of power and Ortega and Murillo’s operators”, are some of the journalistic investigations that were published before the outbreak of April 2018.
In a country without rule of law, these denunciations and their evidence were ignored by State institutions in charge of monitoring and correcting public policies, although they did have the impact of making a historic documentation of corruption, the demolition of democratic institutions, and the state of repression, which was selective at first and then massive, while waiting for a Truth Commission to be constituted in Nicaragua.
The consequences of critical journalism — State intimidation, military espionage, lynching campaigns in the official media, blocking access to public information, and also reprisals from some private advertisers — are things we assume as occupational hazards of taking the side of citizens to scrutinize power. But the official policy of tolerating the existence of the critical press, under severe restrictions, changed radically during the civic insurrection of April 2018, when the Ortega Murillo dictatorship lost its political majority and saw its power under mortal threat. When tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets to protest, armed with their cell phones, the regime targeted the press as the “enemy” to destroy, unleashing violent and indiscriminate regression against citizens and journalists, to prevent this spontaneous pairing of press freedom and freedom of expression.
In fact, since Daniel Ortega’s return to power in 2007, the traditional adversarial nature of the relationship between the government and the press in the competition to set the public agenda had already changed to one of outright hostility in an attempt to silence the independent press. When “Extortion in Tola”, the first major corruption case of the Ortega government, was uncovered on Esta Semana, it generated a virulent official attack against CONFIDENCIAL. A year later, the Attorney General’s Office initiated a criminal investigation against me, extended to the members of the Communication Research Center (CINCO) under the accusation of “money laundering”. On October 11, 2008, the Police and the Prosecutor’s Office forcibly raided the offices of CINCO, but both prosecutor Douglas Vargas and commissioner Glenda Zavala, officials of a dictatorship still in the making, respected the principle of legality and refrained from raiding the media companies CONFIDENCIAL and Esta Semana, which were located in the same building.
Ten years later, under a dictatorship consolidated in the total control of power and in the exercise of repression after the massacre of 2018, when the building where CONFIDENCIAL is located was raided by police for the second time, our newsroom was assaulted and occupied without any court order. Ironically, the official justification given by the Police to close an independent media was that the Ministry of the Interior had ordered them to close the NGO (CINCO), but what they actually did was occupy the companies Invermedia and Promedia – producers of CONFIDENCIAL and Esta Semana-, which had no institutional link with CINCO, whose offices were even located at another address.
Despite the persecution and television censorship, CONFIDENCIAL reinvented itself in exile, and at the end of 2019 we returned to Nicaragua to recover our constitutional rights, doing journalism. However, on May 20, 2021, the Police closed the new editorial office of CONFIDENCIAL for the second time, initiating the repressive escalation that led to the imprisonment of more than 40 political and civic leaders of the democratic opposition, to eliminate political competition in the November 7 elections.
Again, to justify the criminalization of the practice of journalism, the Prosecutor’s Office of the regime invented an alleged association between CONFIDENCIAL and the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation (FVBCh), investigated for alleged money laundering in a process initiated to inhibit the presidential candidacy of its former president, my sister Cristiana Chamorro Barrios. Without providing any evidence, the Police alleged that CONFIDENCIAL, the assaulted media which in 2018 they alleged was owned by CINCO, now belongs to the persecuted FVBCh, and with luxury of cynicism and brazenness the Prosecutor’s Office accuses me for alleged criminal offenses and orders my capture, signaling me of being vice president of a Foundation whose board I resigned from in January 2013, and which has never provided any funding to CONFIDENCIAL.
What the regime persecutes, yesterday and now, is the journalism of CONFIDENCIAL that investigates and denounces corruption, abuse of power, and serious human rights violations that led to crimes against humanity. The journalistic investigations published between April 2018 and May 2021 bring together the testimony of the collective pain and the demand for truth and justice of the victims of repression. “The orders to go all out”, “The police and paramilitaries who shot to kill”, “The massacre of May 30”, “The attack on UNAN and the Divina Misericordia church”, “The operation clean-up in Monimbo, Lovago and Carazo”, “Executions in the countryside”, “The 19 minors killed by the dictatorship”, “The surrender of General Avilés and the complicity of the Army”, “Official negligence and the spread of the pandemic”, “The over mortality due to covid-19 that the Minsa hides”, and “The torture machinery against political prisoners”, are some of the stories that we continue to tell in spite of censorship. That is the journalism that the Orwellian jargon of Ortega and Murillo’s repressive laws – the Cybercrimes Law and the “Defense of Sovereignty” Law – seek to disqualify as a “coup d’état”, “destabilization”, and “undermining of territorial integrity”.
Never in the history of Nicaragua has the press been more unprotected against the fabrications of the authoritarian power and its eagerness to persecute. There is, therefore, no other means of protection for the press than to do more and better journalism. A journalism of resistance, which must also be journalism of quality, because the only thing that defends us against totalitarianism and official slander is our professional credibility and the trust that audiences have placed in our work since we sowed the first seed in 1996.
Thanks to the journalists who have made these first 25 years of CONFIDENCIAL possible and to the audiences who have placed their trust in us. Here we are, again from exile, to assure you that journalism will survive tyranny to tell the great pending story being written by the civil resistance, in Nicaragua and in exile, about how the last family dictatorship is being evicted from power peacefully, so that Nicaragua can once again become a Republic.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff