Press resistance in Nicaragua keeps the flame of freedom alive
By Carlos F. Chamorro (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – On the morning of May 20, 2021, I had left home for work when I was notified that the new CONFIDENCIAL office was surrounded by police patrols and riot police. I changed my route to arrive at Radio Corporación, the leading independent radio station in the country, just in time to denounce the second police assault against the media outlet that I have directed for more than 25 years, and the kidnapping of my colleague Leonel Gutiérrez (may he rest in peace).
The first assault on Confidencial occurred two and a half years earlier, during the first repressive escalation against the media and civil society organizations that promote democratic rights in Nicaragua. At midnight on December 13, 2018, without any court order, dozens of police officers violently stormed the newsroom and seized all the computers, audiovisual production equipment, and personal property. A day later, the police returned to occupy the newsroom’s building permanently. Then, in February 2021, the Government executed an illegal act of confiscation and inaugurated a maternity clinic of the Ministry of Health in the building in a vain attempt to “launder” the crime against freedom of the press.
In the second raid, the police went so far as to capture the “coup” journalists, which is how the authoritarian regime describes citizens who demand democracy, justice, and free elections, after the national outbreak of social protests in April 2018. President Daniel Ortega and his wife Vice President Rosario Murillo responded with a brutal repression carried out by police and paramilitaries, that left 355 dead, thousands injured, hundreds of political prisoners and more than one hundred thousand exiles. However, in the official narrative, the call for free elections amounts to an attempted “coup d’état,” which the totalitarian regime invokes to justify the criminalization of democracy and constitutional rights.
In September of that same year, with the crimes of state repression still in impunity, Ortega imposed a police state that effectively violated the freedoms of assembly and mobilization, press and expression and, finally, annulled the November 7, 2021 elections by imprisoning the seven potential opposition presidential candidates, to proclaim his re-election without competition.
Practicing journalism under a dictatorship is an act of resistance for continuing to tell the truth. Our newsroom has been confiscated twice, and for the second time I am reporting from exile in Costa Rica to avoid being silenced with an infamous arrest warrant. But they have never been able to confiscate journalism.
Our TV shows are censored on both standard television and cable, but we continue to reach a growing audience through YouTube and Facebook. The internet and social media represent an extraordinary vehicle for beating censorship, but the press’ resistance rests on reporters’ determination not to compromise on our commitment to investigating the truth.
To resist is also to practice quality journalism, despite the political polarization. Ultimately, the credibility of the independent press with our audiences depends on it, as well as its effectiveness in the face of the misinformation and propaganda machinery of the five television channels, dozens of radio stations and internet portals, which the ruling family manages as private businesses at the expense of the State.
When the newspaper El País awarded me the Ortega y Gassett prize in May of last year, I thanked them, feeling honored as a spokesperson for a message of encouragement for independent journalism in Nicaragua, which is defending freedom in these moments of persecution, in the face of the worst dictatorship in our history.
Ten months later, the situation is even worse: the cancellation of public freedoms is total, while harassment against journalists now extends to all Nicaraguans and freedom of expression. Three media outlets: Confidencial, 100% Noticias, and La Prensa, are illegally occupied by the police, and more than 100 journalists have been forced into exile and to reestablish their media, but many more continue to report clandestinely from Nicaragua. They are the eyes and ears of the exiled press.
The criminalization of freedom of the press also jeopardizes the right to freedom of opinion: six private universities have been confiscated and 114 non-governmental organizations have been stripped of their legal status. In a country where all citizens are hostages of the dictatorship, there are no longer independent sources that can be cited by the press — doctors, lawyers, economists, political analysts, businesspeople, priests, ordinary citizens — all fear government retaliation and request that their identities be protected in order to inform or express their opinions.
In the trials carried out at the El Chipote jail complex, without respecting due process, more than 30 political prisoners, including the presidential candidates, have already been condemned to sentences of eight to thirteen years in prison, for the alleged crimes of “conspiracy” against national sovereignty, and propagation of “false news” to provoke the destabilization of the country. In these imitations of judicial trials, the witnesses are the same police officers who spied on and kidnapped the accused, and the “proof of a crime” are interviews the prisoners gave to media such as El País and Confidencial, or the opinions they posted on social networks.
The victims of this indiscriminate witch hunt are not only opposition political and civic leaders. A farmer, Santos Bellorín, was sentenced to eleven years in prison for the “cybercrime” of causing “alarm, fear, and anxiety” in the municipality of Pueblo Nuevo. But he does not have a smart phone or a Twitter or Facebook account. And a public accountant Alexis Peralta, from the municipality of Condega, was sentenced to eleven years in prison for the crime of “conspiracy”, because supposedly an anonymous witness reported to the Police that he was allegedly “calling out to ignore” the last elections.
These are the stories we continue to tell in Confidencial, along with investigations into the torture of political prisoners, public corruption at the top of the regime, fiscal terrorism against businesspeople, and the exponential growth of migration in a country with no future.
The resistance of the press is not enough to clear the way for democratic change under a dictatorship, but as long as it persists it will keep the flame of freedom burning. By reporting today without submitting to censorship and self-censorship, we are sowing the seeds of truth, upon which justice will be imparted tomorrow.
*This article was originally published in El País of Spain.