Three years of degradation of press freedom in Nicaragua

In april 2018Daniel Ortega, President of Nicaragua, announced reforms to the country’s social security benefits. Protests erupted after years of discontent against the increasingly repressive regime. The Ortega government responded with a brutal crackdown on protesters, political opponents and the independent press, which still has not faltered.

As protests escalated in April, Ángel Gahona, an investigative journalist who headed El Meridien, a local television station – was shot dead while broadcasting an anti-Ortega demonstration live. Gahona’s family and other journalists who were at the scene with him believe national police killed him, they said The Guardian, even if the government argues otherwise.

Members of Ángel Gahona’s family at a vigil for murdered journalists. Photo of Oswaldo Rivas

Months later, the government imposed a blockade on the materials needed to print newspapers, seriously undermining two major independent news outlets, La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario. In December 2018, the national police ransacked the newsrooms of Confidential (a news site), Esta Semana, and Tonight (TV news programs), all of which are run by one of the country’s most prominent journalists, Carlos Fernando Chamorro. Officers seized computers and other equipment from newsrooms. “They physically close our offices by taking them militarily”, Chamorro Recount The Guardian. Police also searched Niu, an independent magazine.

La Prensa workers show a blank first page along with two other pointed covers in protest. They read: “Dictatorship affects YOUR right to stay informed”; “Have you ever imagined living without information? “; “Without freedom of the press, there is no freedom.” Photo of Oswaldo Rivas

A few days later, the police raided and confiscated material from 100% Noticias, an independent news network. They arrested Miguel Mora, the founder and owner of the station, and Lucía Pineda, the news director. At first, Mora and Pineda were held in a prison that Human Rights Watch called a torture site; they were then transferred to maximum security prisons. “We were locked in total isolation cells, like small graves. There were very narrow windows. I haven’t spoken to anyone. We were essentially buried alive ”, Mora Recount the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the director of Confidencial, peeks into his ransacked office in Managua. Photo of Oswaldo Rivas

By mid-2019, more than ninety Nicaraguan journalists, including Chamorro and Pineda, had entered exile in Costa Rica.

Carlos Fernando Chamorro and his wife at Managua airport, returning from exile in Costa Rica. Photo of Oswaldo Rivas

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Attacks on press freedom have remained at historically high levels. From April 2018 to March 2019, press freedom violations increased by more than a thousand percent compared to last year, according to the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation. Sixty-one cases of violence against journalists have been documented between December 2019 and February 2020, as well as three hundred and thirty-eight cases of violations of press freedom between January and November 2020.

Arlen Cerda, editor-in-chief of Confidencial, is fired from the national police headquarters, Plaza El Sol. Cerda and Carlos Fernando Chamorro, her boss, were trying to investigate why the police had raided their office. Photo of Oswaldo Rivas

In October 2020, the National Assembly approved a set of laws that criminalize and encourage censorship of journalism. A law on cybercrime, for example, makes the dissemination of “fake news” punishable by up to five years in prison. The Foreign Agents Act – which obliges Nicaraguan groups, including news organizations, to register as “foreign agents” if they receive funding from outside the country, even indirectly – – led to the closure of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, pen
The Nicaraguan International Chapter and other nonprofit media organizations.

In recent months, several Nicaraguan journalists have been prosecuted. The national police searched their homes. Ortega loyalists attacked journalists. At the end of May, the police raided Esta Semana and Confidential again; they arrested a cameraman, Leonel Gutiérrez, the only person in the newsroom at the time. On the same day, police arrested and assaulted journalist Luis Sequeira, correspondent for Agence France-Presse, who was quickly released.

Riot police lined up in front of the 100% Noticias building. They blocked access to the newsroom during the arrests of Miguel Mora and Lucía Pineda. Photo of Oswaldo Rivas

In May, the Interior Ministry summoned Cristiana Chamorro – a prominent journalist, former director of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation and daughter of the president who beat Ortega in 1990 – and two other former officials to investigate alleged inconsistencies in the financial statements of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation. Under threat of money laundering charges, the foundation, which monitored press freedom in the country, closed in February.

Cristiana Chamorro, former director of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, prepares to address reporters shortly after meeting with government officials in Managua in May. Photo of Oswaldo Rivas

Nearly two dozen journalists, following the Ortega investigation, have been called to testify under oath. This week, the government added thirteen news outlets to its investigation, which leaders around the world have denounced as a joke. Cristiana Chamorro, a popular figure who is also considering running for president, is currently under house arrest. On Sunday, police arrested Mora – another presidential candidate; the fifth to be arrested –– and ransacked his home.

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Oswaldo Rivas is an award-winning Nicaraguan photographer. He started in the world of photography in 1988 at the Nueva Nicaragua International News Agency (ANN) as a war correspondent covering the country’s civil war. In 1993 he was director of photography for La Tribuna. From 1997 to 2020, he was part of the Reuters photojournalist team. He currently works as a freelance. His work appeared in the New York Times in the USA, El País in Spain, Gent in Italy, Reform in Mexico, and many other points of sale.

TOP IMAGE: Journalists and protesters hide behind a wall during an anti-Ortega protest in Masaya, Nicaragua, 2018. Photo by Oswaldo Rivas

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