Scores of journalists have fled Nicaragua after a crackdown on the media began in mid-2018. Many in exile in Costa Rica are continuing their mission of holding the country's leaders to account.
For over 20 years, prominent Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro (pictured above) has reported on the political ups and downs in his country. Today, the 63-year-old continues to cover current affairs in his home country only now he does so from across the border in Costa Rica. In January, Chamorro and his wife fled Nicaragua after numerous threats of violence and arrest were made against him by members of President Daniel Ortega’s security forces. Just one month earlier, police had raided the offices of his media house where he edited the Confidencial newspaper (also available in English) and produced the television program Esta Semana. The offices were trashed and equipment was either destroyed or confiscated.
"They raided our offices, they assaulted the offices, they robbed us of everything," Chamorro told DW. "They weren’t burglars but the police themselves with no legal order we know of."
The raid was the culmination of months of attacks on free expression and the media by the increasingly authoritarian regime of President Ortega, who has held the country's highest position since 2006. The crackdown started in April 2018 after opposition protests were brutally suppressed by the police and members of the Nicaraguan military. It is estimated that up to 300 protesters were killed.
Independent media houses have since been shuttered and numerous prominent journalists, including Miguel Mora and Lucia Pineda from 100% Noticias, have been arrested. Mora and Pineda have since been released but the two cannot continue their journalistic work in the country. Many other reporters have fled the country and the media that remains is now mostly under state control.
Prominent academics, student leaders and members of the Catholic Church have also experienced reprisals for speaking out against Ortega's rule. One critical bishop, Sylvio Baez, was forced to leave the country and is now in Rome.
"This is just brutal repression. Thousands of people were wounded, hundreds disappeared and more than 70,000 are now in exile," Chamorro told DW. "I mean, targeting journalists is a brutal act but it's much worse to take the lives of so many people."
New location, same ideals
Many of the journalists have fled to Costa Rica, a country with a reliable internet connection and strong protections for free expression and media freedom. Safe from persecution, they continue to report on the situation in Nicaragua online and on social media platforms.
Nicaragua Aktual, one of these media enterprises, was started by six exiled journalists who wanted to take advantage of their new location to continue to be a voice for their friends, family and compatriots across the border. Their reports are posted on Facebook and YouTube and shared using messaging apps like WhatsApp.
"We must continue inform the people of Nicaragua, the international community and decision-makers about all of these stories that are not covered because of the fear of reprisals," said Dino Andino, one of the program's founders.
The small team at Nicaragua Aktual produces daily videos covering breaking news as well as political analysis and opinion. The program used to have one correspondent in Nicaragua but he has since been forced into hiding after being threatened by security forces.
"Telling the truth is not a negotiable principle, nor is it part of ideology 'X' or 'Y.' Being on the right side of history is not an alternative, it is a principle of every communicator," said Andino.
Citizen reporting fills the gap
The result of the crackdown is that the media landscape for exiled Nicaraguan journalists has transformed from one of competition to one of solidarity. These new outlets have to work together as they all depend on the information sent to them by a network of citizens and reporters in Nicaragua who understand that by doing so puts them at risk of detention. According to Chamorro, citizen reporters routinely send in information along with photos and videos from all over the country that allows the site to document developments on the ground.
"This is a double battle for freedom of the press and for freedom of expression and we cannot separate those. I don't want to diminish the role of the media but I just want to stress that there is an equally important role for citizens in resisting and defending freedom of expression," said Chamorro.
Read more: Nicaragua journalists attacked by police
The Confidencial newspaper was known for its investigative journalism and critical analysis, a legacy that continues but in an online form. Esta Semana also lives on but as an online video series. No matter the format, their editorial stance is clear: to promote political mobilization and a strong opposition to spur political change and the restoration of free expression and democratic ideals in Nicaragua.
"He has stopped governing and is only repressing. This means that he cannot maintain any kind of social or political or economic consensus in the country," said Chamorro.
For these exiled journalists, the target audience is not just those still in Nicaragua but also key decision-makers from the U.S., the U.N. and the European Union who could increase international pressure on the government. Chamorro believes that political change can only happen through peaceful means as Ortega's continued control over the police and the military means that an armed uprising would be impossible. His hope is that the populace will continue to rise up and demand new, democratic elections.
"Change will not come easy with Ortega. It will only happen if there is maximum, simultaneous domestic and international pressure [on the regime]," he added.
Attacks on media freedom
Brutality against the media and the opposition is not a new phenomenon for Nicaragua or for Chamorro. In 1978, his father, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro was assassinated at the offices of the opposition newspaper he edited by the regime of dictator Anastasio Somoza. Carlos Chamorro’s mother, Violeta Chamorro, went on to be elected president in 1990, defeating then President Ortega and marking the first peaceful transition in modern Nicaraguan history.
Since then, parties have led the country from the center right to the far left. Ortega was defeated again in 2000 but he and his Sandinista National Liberation Front won the presidency in 2006 in an election that was recognized as free and fair by the international community.
Most observers both inside and outside Nicaragua agree that Ortega has shifted the country from a democracy to an authoritarian regime. Ortega, along with his wife, Rosario Murillo who is also the country’s vice president, has increasingly tightened his grip on the Nicaraguan military and economy, often through repressive means. The president also assumed control over many of the country’s democratic institutions, including those that regulate the elections. In 2016, Ortega won reelection in a landslide. Public indignation following the election and the passing of a controversial new law limiting pensions sparked the opposition protests in 2018.
A regional breakdown
According to Dr Sabine Kurtenbach, acting director of the GIGA Institute of Latin American Studies in Hamburg, Ortega's actions have often mirrored those of other authoritarian regimes in the region, including those in Guatemala and Venezuela.
"A lot of these injustices accumulated and then last year it sort of exploded," she said. "What we know from our research is that the moment governments resort to repression, the situation is going to escalate."
For years, the political and economic support for Ortega came from other leftist leaders in the region, including President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela and President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Cuba. This support propped up the Nicaraguan economy but has since dried up as those countries face economic hardship driven in part by international sanctions. According to Kurtenbach, this means that Ortega had fewer resources to "buy" political support through public policies and instead resorted to repressive methods, thereby alienating former supporters.
"We are now at a point now where his former allies and broader civil society actors can see that this leads not just to the dismantlement of some political freedoms but that this is a full backslide towards authoritarianism," she said.
From just across the border, Carlos Chamorro continues his role as a mouthpiece for the Nicaraguan people. Even in the face of increasing violence and intimidation, he believes that resistance through information, solidarity and resolve — with a little help from the internet and social media — will eventually lead to another peaceful transfer of power and the restoration of a democratic state.
"In Nicaragua, cell phones are now the weapon of choice," he said.