By Natalie Southwick*
HAVANA TIMES – When protests erupted in Nicaragua in April last year, it was clear from the beginning that the country’s media landscape would be a battleground. One day into the unrest, the government ordered cable providers to cut the signals of at least five TV channels. By the end of the year, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) had documented attacks, arrests, and even surveillance of journalists.
What stood out was how the risks escalated from injuries while reporting on protests or journalists being harassed and threatened online and via pro-government media to arbitrary detentions, raids on news outlets, surveillance and even imprisonment. Two journalists–100% Noticias director Miguel Mora and news director Lucía Pineda Ubau–were jailed for nearly six months.
In some ways, the press was an easy target. President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, who oversees official state communications, spent years tightening their control over the media. The majority of television stations and major newspapers are owned by members of the presidential family or allies including Mexican media tycoon Remigio Ángel González. CPJ has previously reported how few outlets dare report critically on the government because of pressure. Reporters from the few independent outlets, such as news website Confidencial, run by Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the son of former President Violeta Chamorro; or Radio Darío, reporting since 1959 from the northwestern city of León, told CPJ they were free to report as long as they didn’t cross certain lines, such as openly criticizing leadership.
CPJ made multiple attempts to contact the president’s office, via phone and email between December 2018 and April 2019, for comment about attacks on the press, but did not receive a response. The national police did not respond to requests for comment made on several occasions between December 2018 and early July.
In its monitoring of the unrest in Nicaragua, CPJ identified four key stages between the start of protests in April 2018 and the end of the year. A snapshot of some of those incidents are captured in this infographic, based on CPJ research and information from a journalist based in Nicaragua, who assisted our emergencies department with on-the-ground reporting.
Violence and Protests
Journalists–particularly photojournalists–regularly found themselves in the line of fire when protests first broke out. When student leaders and activists filled the streets in April and May, photojournalists including Inti Ocón from Agence France-Press described how they had to dodge police firing rubber bullets and tear gas. In León, pro-government supporters set fire to the offices of Radio Darío. The station’s building was destroyed, a security guard suffered burns, and two arsonists died
The next day, viewers watching television reporter Ángel Gahona report on the aftermath of a protest in the eastern port city of Bluefields inadvertently witnessed his murder, when an unidentified gunman shot him during a Facebook Live broadcast.
Intimidation and Threats
As the initial wave of protests subsided, the risks for journalists shifted from violence to threats and intimidation. Local officials criticized individual journalists on pro-government radio programs, in some cases sharing their addresses or the names of their children, and police regularly stopped journalists to question them about their reporting. Some threats were more explicit: In August, Radio Corporación staff received anonymous threats, including a $5,000 bounty on the head of one reporter.
At the same time, turbas–paramilitary groups of armed civilians acting parallel to state security forces–were establishing control over restive areas and crushing resistance, as the number of political prisoners held at sites like Managua’s notorious El Chipote detention center swelled to more than 500, according to local human rights organizations.
During this period, journalists were still at risk of violence: armed attackers broke into the Managua apartment of La Prensa reporter Josué Garay on June 10, and robbed, beat, and threatened him. In July, paramilitary groups laid siege to a church in Managua, trapping multiple journalists, alongside priests and student protesters, for more than 12 hours.
Fearing for their safety and that of their families, many journalists fled the country. As of June 2019, at least 50 Nicaraguan journalists were in exile, including Confidencial director Chamorro, according to local journalists’ groups.
Surveillance and Court Orders
By mid-summer, journalists traveling between cities for work said they often encountered police who would stop and question them about their work, confiscate devices or warn them not to return. Some outlets reported a consistent police presence outside their offices; in other instances, police came to journalists’ homes. Video footage posted to YouTube showed a drone outside the home of 100% Noticias director Mora in November, Mora later said that he said he believed the drone belonged to police. Nicaragua’s journalists were no longer dodging bullets or tear gas canisters, but the message from authorities was clear: We are watching you.
International journalists also came under pressure. Authorities on August 25 detained Emiliana Mello, a documentary filmmaker while she was covering a march in the western department of Carazo. She was held for a day and had her equipment taken before being deported to the U.S. And Carl-David Goette-Luciak, a U.S-Austrian dual citizen, spent several weeks battling a fierce online harassment campaign before he was detained and deported in September.
Toward the end of 2018, CPJ found reporters being detained for increasingly longer periods and a series of newsroom raids in December put two journalists in prison and drove many more into exile.
On December 3, police raided the temporary newsroom of Radio Darío, handcuffed and questioned reporters, and confiscated equipment. Less than two weeks later, officers raided the Confidencial offices in Managua and removed several pick up trucks’ worth of equipment and files. The next week, police raided the Managua offices of 100% Noticias, and arrested Mora, news director Pineda, and executive director Verónica Chávez, who is married to Mora. Chávez was released several hours later but the other two were charged with multiple anti-state crimes and sent to prison to await trial. They were finally released on June 11, after almost six months behind bars.
The government’s attempts to control the flow of information went beyond local newsrooms. Reuters reported how Ortega, on December 19, expelled two monitoring bodies set up by the Organization of American States, one of which was due to report on human rights violations during the protests.
The end-of-year statistics for journalism in Nicaragua were sobering: one journalist killed, two imprisoned, dozens more in exile or in hiding, many outlets shuttered or muzzled.
*Natalie Southwick is the CPJ South and Central Americas Program Coordinator