“We Wanted to Get the Electoral Environment”

The moment when the El Heraldo news team was expelled from Nicaragua. Photo: courtesy El Heraldo.

Carlos Mauricio Flores, executive director of the Honduran newspaper “El Heraldo”, speaks of the expulsion of his news team from Nicaragua.

By La Prensa

HAVANA TIMES – On Tuesday, October 26, a news team from the Honduran newspaper El Heraldo, was blocked from entering Nicaragua by functionaries of the Ortega-Murillo regime. The news team had come planning to cover the run-up to Nicaragua’s general elections.

“Exit, and leave Nicaragua, because your presence isn’t allowed,” an immigration official told the group at the Guasaule, border station, located some 123 miles from the Honduran capital.

La Prensa spoke with Carlos Mauricio Flores, El Heraldo’s executive director, who condemned the occurrence. “We regret it, we repudiate it, and we condemn it. This isn’t worthy behavior for a democratic country,” he stated.

The newspaper had planned full coverage of the Nicaraguan elections. They had spent the week previous to the border incident preparing to travel to Nicaragua to get a sense of the “electoral environment”. However, they also knew there was a possibility that the Ortega-Murillo regime wouldn’t allow them to cross the border.

“We had planned this as part of our annual newsroom schedule, to offer early coverage of the electoral process in Nicaragua. We’d already been preparing for a few weeks and we’d made some contacts in Nicaragua. We also had some contacts here in Honduras, and our people had a detailed plan of what we wanted to cover,” the Heraldo’s director commented.

The media outlet wanted to do an article on the topic of freedom of expression, and also to report on how Nicaraguans were dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, along with everything related to the electoral process. In addition, they wanted to establish contact with functionaries with the Supreme Electoral Council in Nicaragua, and other officials. However, their queries to these officials had gone unanswered.

“Our idea was to cover the electoral atmosphere and how Nicaraguan citizens were preparing to face the challenges the elections pose for them. Regrettably, we’re not going to be able to inform our readers, nor take photographs of what’s happening,” Flores affirmed.

The regime denies coverage to the international press

Nicaragua is ten days away from one of the most questioned elections ever in the country, in which the Ortega-Murillo regime insists on imposing their will at any cost.

Repression against the opposition and the independent media has escalated enormously in Nicaragua since the end of May. The dictatorship is currently holding nearly 40 people imprisoned and incommunicado, among them seven political leaders who had aspired to represent the opposition as presidential candidates in this election. They’ve also imprisoned journalists, activists, and business leaders, among others. These prisoners have swelled the ranks of the more than 120 political prisoners who were already in the dictatorship’s jails since well before May of this year.

On October 22, the regime denied entry to journalist Frederic Saliba, a correspondent with the French newspaper Le Monde who had also come to cover the elections.

The Le Monde website reported: “Frederic Saliba, a correspondent based in Mexico City since 2009, was informed one day before his scheduled flight to Managua that his airline ticket had been cancelled. The airlines justified this, saying it was the decision of the Nicaraguan authorities for “migratory reasons”.

In addition to not allowing the foreign press to enter the country to cover the elections, the regime has refused to admit international observation. In these elections, Ortega and his wife and vice presidential candidate Rosario Murillo are running against five tiny parties accused of cooperating with the regime to feign electoral competition.

“One of the scenarios we foresaw was what happened today, and we’d taken some measure for this. The primary scenario we’d contemplated was that they’d expel our journalists, because that’s going on with Nicaragua’s own native press outlets. We also had information that it had been happening with other journalist colleagues who wanted to come and cover the electoral process, but were blocked from access. We thought the most likely outcome was that they refused us entry, as, in fact, happened,” declared the executive director of the Honduran newspaper.

Attempt to check the reporter’s cellphone

The journalist team from El Heraldo was comprised of a journalist, a photographer and a driver. According to the Honduran media outlet, they had turned in all the needed paperwork, and had satisfied the protocols. Nonetheless, the Nicaraguan authorities didn’t explain their reason for refusing them entry into the country.

The media outlet posted a note on their website noting they “fulfilled all requirements for their personal registries, from ID numbers to the reasons for the trip.” Still, an official who they recognized as Captain Osman Saez, second in command of the border station, asked them who in the group was the journalist with El Heraldo.

Then, another functionary emerged from an office behind the reception area, and asked the reporter to come in to that office and justify his stay in Nicaragua. This after meeting with a group of agents for a few minutes.

According to the article in El Heraldo, during the reporter’s interrogation, Captain Saez – a man of about 40 – tried to take his cell phone. He said he wanted to verify its contents, and also to certify that the journalist wasn’t taping.

The journalist refused to turn over his phone, and the attempt was dropped. The official then demanded that the reporter turn off his cell phone, because their conversation couldn’t be taped, he indicated.

Flores emphasized that the Heraldo’s journalist team complied with everything the Nicaraguan authorities asked them to.

“The instructions they had was not to fall into any type of provocation, especially in a country that isn’t theirs. (..) The guys were prepared and this incident occurred,” Flores expressed.

Treated “like criminals”

According to the media outlet, the decision not to allow their entry came 15 minutes later, when “the boss” arrived to inform them that the press team “was expelled from Nicaragua from this moment on.” The speaker, who remained unidentified, told them: “this type of entry” into the country “isn’t allowed”.

The Heraldo also denounced that the Nicaraguan authorities held onto their personal documents for some twenty minutes, in order to leave an entry in the registry that this team was prohibited from entering Nicaragua in the future. That’s how another person, who had been observing the scene, expressed it. Meanwhile, dozens of other people were routinely presenting their entry documents.

The media outlet noted that an older man of about 65 then escorted the press team to the exit, “as if we were criminals.” This functionary then recorded on his cell phone the departure of the Honduran newspaper team from Nicaraguan territory.

They fear the press

In the words of El Heraldo’s executive director, what happened to his news team on Tuesday reaffirms the perception that already exists on an international level, regarding the authoritarian actions of the Ortega-Murillo regime, especially against the media.

“We truly regret this situation, and believe that our experience [the expulsion of their press team] reflects the attitude of a government that fears the press. A government that fears the labor journalists realize of gathering and disseminating information. In the same way, it reaffirms the perception that exists internationally of the authoritarian actions the [Nicaraguan] government has taken against the media, for example with [the shuttered Nicaraguan newspaper] La Prensa, and other media outlets in Nicaragua. These media outlets have been suffering this type of situation, which simply reflects the attitude of an anti-democratic government that wants to permanently lock up freedom of expression.”

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times.