“We journalists have taken sides”
The founder and editor of the Nicaraguan bulletin Confidencial
and director of the TV news programs “Esta Noche” and “Esta Semana”
describes how Nicaragua’s independent journalists have responded
to the country’s crisis and analyzes the current state of the media
Carlos F. Chamorro
Neither as citizens nor as journalists were we prepared for what we have gone through in Nicaragua since April 2018. The Nicaraguan media have developed their own capacities for resistance in this context of persecution and repression,.
The media’s first task was to cover the events, but they overwhelmed us given the dimensions of the national protest, the brutality and cruelty of the State’s response and very soon the emergence of new political forces. The work the independent media did can’t be understood without appreciating the empowerment citizens acquired through their use of cell phones and the social media to document and disseminate everything that was happening: the protests, the calls to action and, of course, the repression.
More journalists and
more independent media
Two phenomena have gone hand in hand in the crisis. First, the number of independent media expanded. Some media that collaborated with the regime in one way or another before April 2018, or maintained a certain neutrality or even some complicity, now distanced themselves from it and began to join the wave of independent journalism as a result of the attitude of their reporters covering the events. This happened with El Nuevo Diario, and also 100% Noticias—a TV channel with which the regime had maintained a certain exchange of information and didn’t veto iy like it did other media. It also happened with Channel 10, owned by the Mexican media entrepreneur Ángel González, which has the largest audience in the country. These media were all very quick to start covering the protests and the repression.
Second, journalists naturally joined together to protect themselves given the collapse of their union organizations, which had either ceased to exist or had lost all credibility in Nicaragua much earlier.
In this way, two major independent press arenas emerged: the Freedom of Press Forum and Independent Journalists and Communicators of Nicaragua (PCIN), which groups together reporters, editors, media owners, camera people, cartoonists and bloggers in a common front to defend press freedom. Its basic and fundamental principle is to accept neither censorship nor self-censorship and to develop active solidarity to deal with the regime’s attacks.
The birth of collaborative journalism
What we call collaborative journalism also emerged with the crisis.
Reporters began to cover events together and thus protect their safety. No one can report the situation of a Police State alone.
They also began to share sources. To a certain degree that sense of competitiveness and primacy the media always have began to disappear, while a collaborative sense to share sources and information was born.
A solidarity network also emerged to share contents. In our case, starting in February 2019 our TV programs “Esta Noche” and “Esta Semana” were subjected to de facto censorship on Nicaragua’s open television and cable television so we began to show them on YouTube and Facebook instead. A network of other digital and radio media—Radio Corporación, Artículo 66, 100% Noticias, Despacho 505, Nicaragua Actual, Nicaragua Investiga, República 18, Voces en Libertad—reproduced our contents in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, United States and other countries.
These forms of collaborative journalism—which I have also seen with colleagues in Venezuela—are fundamental in moments of crisis and resistance.
Verification and rigor
applied to the social media
Given the population’s rapid empowerment in using their cell phones and social networks to spread information, our work as journalists was from the outset to develop curatorial verification work, separating unproven information from real facts. In that task we’ve made mistakes that we’ve been correcting along the way. I think we’ve made the correct choices in the fundamental aspects of this natural process of convergence between citizens and journalists. Today, 18 months after the April uprising, there are fewer facts and more opinions in the social media, unlike in the most intense moments of repression last year.
As journalists we’ve had to take a critical distance from this torrent of opinions, because they come in all flavors and colors, while not necessarily trying to impose their agenda on the media. What they do impose on us is greater rigor.
Name the dead and the killers
I would say that the first great task in April 2018 was to name the dead; identify as real individuals the victims of the massacre the dictatorship had committed in but was denying.
When Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo appeared on a national television hook-up in the first days of the crisis, they talked about anything but the existence of the 25 people who had already died in the country. They were given no name, no history, no family… I think one of the things journalism and the human rights organizations have done is to humanize those who were murdered, providing those whose life had been taken away with a story again.
Later, the relatives of the movement’s victims evolved and created their own underpinnings, organizing around the Mothers of April, who have been demanding truth and justice without impunity. While these are the fundamental pillars of this struggle, it is demanding not only justice but also a democratic change, i.e. the dismantling of the dictatorship and Ortega’s departure.
Investigate both power
and the new leaderships
The other great task, alongside naming the dead and then those who had been captured and imprisoned, also numbering in the hundreds, has been to investigate and reveal the modus operandi of the repression in Nicaragua.
The repression has been executed by a paramilitary army organized from power. The degree of complicity of the Army of Nicaragua in all this can be debated, but it’s clear that these murders have been fundamentally committed by paramilitaries and police agents. Although there’s very little access to data in Nicaragua, major investigations have been done, one of them using the tomographies of those killed as a source, which show a pattern of extrajudicial executions by paramilitary and police snipers. I’m referring to the great work of my colleague Wilfredo Miranda, called “They shot to kill with precision,” which won the King of Spain Journalism Prize in 2018 and was a finalist that same year in COLPIN.
Another task has been to report on the dynamic of this political change process, how the demand for a change of power in Nicaragua has been gestating and transforming. It was born faceless and leaderless, but new leaderships and different interests have been projected as it has developed, with many going to prison and others getting out. This natural and fluid institutional development requires independent and critical press coverage.
We’ve also investigated power and the chain of command of its execution.
The collapse of the official media
To get a complete panorama of the media in the country, I have to say that the official media, that huge collection of radio stations and five or six television channels controlled by Daniel Ortega’s children, collapsed in the crisis due to their inefficiency, lack of credibility and use and abuse of propaganda.
They collapsed because they depend on the official midday monologue phoned in by Vice President Rosario Murillo, which they then repeat on a national media hook-up, sending out a constant discourse of hatred since April. It’s one thing to be identified with a discourse of rhetorical hatred, and quite another to spew it out day after day when an army of paramilitaries and fanatics is everywhere and that discourse buttresses the violence they are exercising against the population.
Journalists in exile
No, we weren’t prepared to deal with this crisis. And many journalists have been lynched in the social networks, besieged in their homes, had the walls of their houses defaced by paramilitaries and the regime’s other forces, and seen their families threatened...
That is one of the main reasons some 90 journalists have gone into exile. Most are from local media in the interior part of the country, where the repression is more dangerous. But they have not stopped reporting. Twenty-six new digital media run by Nicaraguan journalists have sprouted up in exile.
December 12, 2018:
The occupation of Confidencial
I want to refer to the scaling-up of media recession in December 2018. The assault on Confidencial’s editorial offices took place in the middle of the night of December 12-13. No reporters were there and there were no victims. The police arrived, brought the security guards under control and spent the next three hours stealing everything there was. And when I say “everything,” I mean they made off with it all: computers, TV equipment, even personal documents, private documents… Then they came back on December 14 to definitively occupy the building.
The police are still there, alleging compliance with a Ministry of Government order to close a nongovernmental organization whose legal status it had canceled. But they aren’t on the premises of an NGO; they’re in the editorial offices of Confidencial, a communication medium managed by businesses legally registered in the mercantile registry. And the regime knows it perfectly well. It knows it’s violating three rights: to press freedom, to freedom of expression and business freedom. Despite that, we’ve continued to transmit since that very first day on our web site and on television.
A week later, on December 21, came the assault on 100% Noticias. The police entered the TV station while they were broadcasting and the press chief, Lucía Pineda, managed to report live what was happening. The police captured Lucía and the director, Miguel Mora, later opening a penal process against them for the alleged crime of inciting hatred, terrorism and conspiracy. They spent 172 days in prison in isolation cells and under torture. Together with a hundred or so other political prisoners, they got out this June due to an “amnesty law,” more properly a “self-amnesty” law, dictated by the regime to protect itself from eventual investigations into its crimes.
We reaping what we sowed
In that context we were obliged to make a personal decision to go into exile in Costa Rica. I left Nicaragua to preserve both my freedom and my capacity to continue working as a journalist.
The majority of our team is still in Nicaragua. Obviously our writers work remote control from their houses and do so very carefully. That is Nicaragua’s reality today: communication media split between Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the United States...
The key to being able to do journalism from exile is our reporters in Nicaragua. They are our eyes on reality, the ones who have a feel for what’s happening. It’s hard to work remotely like that. In our case, we’ve had extraordinary solidarity from Teletica, Costa Rica’s main television channel, to be able to produce our programs.
Today we are reaping what we’ve sown for the past ten years, during which at a certain point we thought we were just a few people preaching in the desert, trying to do quality journalism. But our investment in credible journalism over these ten years has translated during this crisis into a 3000% growth of our digital audience and more than 700% growth on YouTube. And what has happened with Confi¬dencial is also valid for 100% Noticias, Artículo 66 and many other media in Nicaragua.
The challenge of survival
What are our challenges today? The first is to survive. Ad I say that in the literal sense of the word. Survive in terms of our physical integrity, our freedom, our economic sustainability and our ability to continue doing journalism.
The political and human rights crises Nicaragua is still going through have also produced a profound economic recession. Nicaragua will have a negative growth of -5% this year, after -3.8% last year. It is projected that the recession will last at least three years more, until 2022.
In such an economically recessive context, the survival of the media is obviously in danger. We’ve had to adapt our business model, a mixed model that depends fundamentally on the commercial sphere, but also on foundations that support independent journalism and have been very generous. And of course we count on audience support. We also want our audience to support independent journalism economically.
Our second challenge, which could sound obvious, is to do good journalism, to win the credibility battle in the midst of the current polarization in the country. Doing good journalism means humanizing the economic crisis. It means detecting and documenting the fissures in the regime.
We have taken sides
Our third challenge is to do journalism that lays the groundwork for justice, which implies investigating and documenting of the crimes against humanity, including not only the killings, but also the tortures, forced disappearances and also impunity.
I would say that in today’s Nicaragua there’s a very profound relationship between the press and the truth and justice agenda. We journalists have taken sides in Nicaragua. It’s impossible not to when there are killings like those we’ve seen and when we ourselves have been victims. I’m speaking of the murder of journalist Ángel Gahona and of the more than 1,400 attacks of all kinds against media and journalists by government sympathizers, paramilitaries, police and state institutions.
It is impossible not to take the side of justice in Nicaragua, a country that holds a historic record of amnesties and blotting the political violence out of our memory. We’re not going to forget this genocide, this carnage. This is perhaps the first time in our history that there has been a sort of national consensus that, even though justice isn’t the first thing we’re going to get, we’re committed to getting it, and we know it will happen. And journalism has to accompany that process.
But it comes with a risk: our activism and position-taking in the middle of the polarization could lead to bad journalism, skewed reporting. I believe we also need to achieve some distance, including with respect to what we identify as possible solutions to this crisis… none of which is yet clear. Under this dictatorship, good journalism has to continue monitoring power and also monitor the new political expressions, be they parties or the social movements that have appeared representing the aspirations for democratic change in the country.
The outcome is uncertain
Lastly, I think we Nicaraguan journalists have another huge challenge: to tell stories that remind the international press that it is urgent that they continue paying attention to Nicaragua’s crisis while dealing with the others in the hemisphere today—those of Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile...
I have no conclusion. I only have a lot of questions, just as all of you surely do, about the uncertain outcome of Nicaragua’s crisis. Ortega could certainly prolong his agony in power due to his control over the Police and para¬militaries and his cooptation of the Army. But at the same time his regime is unsustainable. And for that reason it’s in a terminal political crisis.
Terminal crises aren’t resolved in a day or a week; they can drag out a long time. This crisis is terminal because Ortega has lost the capacity to govern. He commands and orders based on repression, but he has no possibility of establishing support and alliances in the country or the international community. And while it’s true that there’s an economic recession that’s impoverishing many Nicaraguans, there’s no total collapse of the economy. And the economy in itself can’t produce political change.
The only thing that can generate that change is pressure: national civic pressure, international pressure, diplomatic pressure and economic pressure all exercised to the maximum and simultaneously. Ortega isn’t going to make that easy. So we’re facing an uncertain outcome, one that could provoke more pain and suffering in Nicaragua.
I do have the conviction
that I’m going to be there
I personally experienced the fall of the Somoza dictatorship in the insurrection’s internal front. At that time I had a very political vision of journalism, which led me to a party militancy that I left more than 20 years ago, in 1994.
Now, 40 years after the fall of that dictatorship I still have the same conviction, that journalism has political consequences in a society that wants and is counting on democratic change, but it must never renounce its autonomy; it must be able to continue monitoring power and providing a counterweight to it.
I also have the convocation that I’m going to be there, with my journalist colleagues, to once again tell the story of how another dictatorship changes, this time peacefully, civically.
Presentation to the Latin American Conference of Investigative Journalists (COLPIN), which met in Mexico ity between November 7 and 10,
In 2018 and 2019 international public opinion has recognized the quality of Nicaraguan journalism. In 2018 its independent press received the Press Freedom Grand Prize granted by the Inter-American Press