Three years of deterioration of press freedom in Nicaragua
In April 2018, Daniel Ortega, the President of Nicaragua, announced reforms to the country’s social security benefits. Protests have erupted, following years of dissatisfaction with an 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 grew in April, Ángel Gahona, an investigative journalist who led El Meridian, a local newscast — was shot and killed while broadcasting an anti-Ortega protest 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.
Months later, the government imposed a blockade on newspaper printing equipment, seriously damaging two major independent news outlets, La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario. In December 2018, the national police ransacked the newsrooms of Confidential (an information site), Esta Semana, and Tonight (television news), all led by one of the most prominent journalists in the country, Carlos Fernando Chamorro. Officers seized computers and other materials from newsrooms. “They physically close our offices by taking them militarily”, Chamorro Recount The Guardian. The police also searched Niu, an independent magazine.
A few days later, the police searched and confiscated the material of 100% Noticias, an independent information network. They arrested Miguel Mora, the station’s founder and owner, 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 later transferred to maximum security prisons. “We were locked in cells of total isolation, like little tombs. There were very narrow windows. I haven’t spoken to anyone. We were basically buried alive,” Mora Recount the Committee to Protect Journalists.
By mid-2019, more than ninety Nicaraguan journalists, including Chamorro and Pineda, had embarked on exile in Costa Rica.
Attacks on press freedom 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 press freedom violations between January and November 2020.
In October 2020, the National Assembly approved a set of laws that criminalize and promote censorship of journalism. A cybercrime law, for example, makes spreading “fake news” punishable by up to five years in prison. The Foreign Agents Law – which requires Nicaraguan groups, including the media, to register as “foreign agents” if they receive funding from outside the country, even indirectly – has led to the closure of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, pen
The Nicaraguan Chapter of International and other non-profit media organizations.
In recent months, several Nicaraguan journalists have been prosecuted. The national police searched their homes. Ortega supporters assaulted journalists. At the end of May, the police searched Esta Semana and Confidential again; they detained a cameraman, Leonel Gutiérrez, the only person present 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.
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 its doors in February.
Nearly two dozen journalists, following the Ortega investigation, were called to testify under oath. This week, the government added 13 news agencies to its investigation, which world leaders have denounced as a farce. Cristiana Chamorro, a popular personality 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.
Oswaldo Rivas is an award-winning Nicaraguan photographer. He started in the world of photography in 1988 at the international news agency Nueva Nicaragua (ANN) as a war correspondent covering the country’s civil war. In 1993, he directed the photography of The gallery. From 1997 to 2020, he was part of the Reuters photojournalism team. He is currently working as a freelancer. His work has appeared in the New York Times in the USA, El País in Spain, Gent in Italy, Reform in Mexico, and many other outlets.
TOP IMAGE: Journalists and protesters hide behind a wall during an anti-Ortega demonstration in Masaya, Nicaragua, in 2018. Photo by Oswaldo Rivas