“They have not been able to silence us”: Exiled Nicaraguan journalists go digital to keep their journalism alive
Journalism across Central America is suffering at the hands of the region’s governments.
El Salvador’s El Faro recently that it’s moved its business operations to Costa Rica after years of attacks from President Nayib Bukele. In Guatemala, journalist José Rubén Zamora is imprisoned for publishing an investigation into 144 corruption cases linked to President Alejandro Giammattei; the newspaper he founded, El Periódico, was raided and its bank accounts were frozen.
In Honduras — a country that, according to Reporters Without Borders has been slowly sinking into nightmarish disaster for more than a decade,” the government dismantled an agency designed to protect journalists.
Press freedom in Nicaragua has faced attacks from all sides and is only getting worse under president Daniel Ortega, now in his fourth consecutive term. The country now ranks 160 out of 180 on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. At least 185 journalists have fled the country since 2018, with at least seven going into exile in the first three months of 2023, free press advocacy group Voces del Sur found.
As of February, at least 22 journalists had been stripped of citizenship due to their reporting on Ortega’s regime.
Journalists who work through these precarious conditions emphasize that international coverage from mainstream media outlets can help pressure their countries’ governments to reverse course. Such coverage also humanitarian aid budgets. At the International Symposium of Online Journalism earlier this month, a panel in the Spanish-language Colloquium on Digital Journalism convened four of Nicaragua’s most prominent journalists, all of whom are living in exile, to discuss the harrowing conditions they’ve lived through — offices being burned down, embargoes on supplies like newsprint and ink, imprisonment for sharing information on social media — and how they’ve innovated to keep publishing.
Below is an excerpt of the discussion of how Nicaraguan journalists pivoted after being forced into exile, and the challenges they face today. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity, but if you can, you should watch the entire recording of the session here.
The panel was moderated by Dagmar Thiel, the U.S. director of Fundamedios, a free press advocacy group that supports Hispanic journalists in the Americas.
Anibal Toruño, the owner and director of Radio Darío, one of the country’s oldest radio stations. His citizenship was revoked.
Juan Lorenzo Holmann, the publisher of Nicaragua’s leading newspaper La Prensa. His citizenship was revoked and he was exiled to the United States after being imprisoned for 18 months. Today, all of La Prensa’s staff operates in exile.
Martha Irene Sánchez, the director of República 18 and the president of the Independent Journalists and Communicators of Nicaragua. She has lived in Costa Rica since 2021.
Miguel Mendoza, a veteran sports journalist who was imprisoned for 18 months and exiled to the United States in February.
It has undoubtedly been a difficult and demanding experience. We were thrown into no man’s land. The truth of the matter is that you don’t know you’re not ready until the time comes. At that moment we realized that we had to make a home [online], that our news had to be audiovisual and not necessarily just audio. It was a very fast transformation. It takes a lot of effort and commitment, and also understanding that the struggle that we, the media in Nicaragua, have is Daniel Ortega trying to silence Radio Darío…just like with El Confidencial, just like 100% Noticias, just like La Prensa, just like all the media outlets that have had to reinvent themselves.
The great challenge and the great victory is that they have not been able to silence us and we continue to overcome censorship. We continue to reinvent ourselves to achieve good metrics in this world that is relatively new to us.
They will never silence independent journalism. This is something that is not only the responsibility of La Prensa, but it’s the responsibility of the many independent journalists who have accepted this challenge and have done it with great courage. It is true that we are outside of the country, but that country has been kidnapped. But through our journalism, we have the duty to rescue that country — to return and start rebuilding the society we all dream of: A society in which we can all express ourselves freely, without the fear that someone is following us, that we will be persecuted, that we will suffer being exiled or imprisoned or even the loss of life.
The second was because being in exile made it possible to continue practicing journalism. I remember my first days in Costa Rica. I said, “What do I do now?” because I came from a TV news outlet and I no longer had that job. I began to get together with other colleagues who were living in forced exile and we said, “We’re going to do journalism. How do we do it?”
We started with Facebook pages, but we continued telling stories about Nicaragua. Some of those stories are about migration from Nicaragua, because in exile we began to find other narratives and realities that perhaps we were not seeing at the time of the most acute crisis.
Leading a media outlet with a small team, [like] República 18, undoubtedly poses many challenges. There are about 30 journalistic initiatives that have been launched by [Nicaraguan] journalists in exile. They started with a lot of conviction, commitment, and volunteerism. However, we know that we need more than conviction, commitment, and volunteerism. We need resources. We have to move from surviving to living. We cannot continue to be victims.
This dictatorship has suppressed too many rights — not only those that concern us, like freedom of the press and freedom of expression, but it has even extended to our families. That is why we also make an important call that we want to continue practicing journalism, but continue doing so with conditions that dignify us as people.
One of the things I used to ask my wife while I was in El Chipote was if people had unfollowed me on social media. Once, I told her, “If I’m here because of everything I did through social media, it’s going to be a shame if people unfollow me now that I’m here.”
But when I got access to my accounts back, I realized that people had not unfollowed me, but that more had joined me. In the last two months on Facebook, on Twitter, on YouTube, my follower counts have multiplied, and that has motivated me to continue in the trenches — collaborating with my colleagues who are in exile and those who are still in Nicaragua, accompanying them in this struggle to overcome censorship.
I have a small space on YouTube called “De preso a preso.” Because I’m a journalist, it’s better that I ask those [who were imprisoned] about the inner workings of the prison. I have done four [sessions] so far, and with each one there are people who don’t want to talk, but little by little I am convincing them.
The dilemma I have now with my social media is: Which one do I share more? Do I report what continues to happen in Nicaragua or do I give more space to sports journalism? Some people who tell me to focus on sports, but more people tell me to continue doing what I have been doing because I already have been a political prisoner and I have to continue on that path. One dilemma I have is how to differentiate those topics in my social media feeds.
The only thing that we [want to share] is the importance of continuing to support journalism and independent media. Nicaragua’s problem is Central America’s problem. We are going to depend on the audience and create awareness around this to be able to support and contribute to news outlets.
Obviously, we are going through a very difficult situation right now. We cannot sustain ourselves because in our country, those who want to advertise with us are persecuted in the same way that we are. So, unfortunately, right now we need support from government agencies, from private foundations, we need support wherever it can come from. In addition to the support that we must have, we need the support of our society who we owe our work to. That is a symbiosis, that I need you and you need me so that I can help you. Please support independent journalism in Nicaragua.
I especially call on the governments of Costa Rica, Spain, the United States, and Central America, where most Nicaraguan journalists in exile are living now, and on the international community to support this initiative. I believe that it’s possible to advocate for a resolution as soon as possible. I would like to ask our colleagues in the region and around the world to continue to keep an eye on what is happening in Nicaragua, where everything unthinkable has already happened.
I’m going to give it a try. I’m going to establish my own outlet and the web page, and look for funding. I hope that my project does not die. I’m going to hold on until the end and see how far I go. It’s possible that I will do a combination of working a job here in the United States and work on [my news outlet] in my spare time. That [blank] front page of La Prensa when all the supplies were seized: God willing, it won’t be the front page of all Nicaragua’s journalism. Because if the people who are in charge of financing news outlets are the ones fighting while living in exile, then the dictatorship will win, because the media will go dark.
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