Journalist Angel Gahona was killed by a well-aimed gunshot on the night of April 21st in Bluefields, on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast. As the bullet struck, he was broadcasting reports of the social protest and police repression on Facebook Live for his news program El Meridiano [“Midday”]. His death, captured by another cameraman at the moment when Angel collapsed and his own camera stopped filming, produced national outrage and an international call for justice. This was the first denunciation on a world level of the human rights violations occurring during the regime’s killing spree.
Across a brief historical span, the images of the Angel Gahona tragedy recalled the death of ABC reporter Bill Stewart, killed in cold blood by a soldier of Somoza’s National Guard on June 20, 1979, in Managua, during the armed insurrection against Somoza. The difference between the deaths of these two journalists is that given that the murder of Stewart was on tape, even Somoza couldn’t blame the Sandinista guerrillas for the crime. In contrast, the one who killed Angel during the Ortega dictatorship wasn’t identified in the video, so that now the true killer is being protected, and the case is left in impunity.
The death of this journalist – among the first of over 320 victims of the massacres from April through July – represented a test of Daniel Ortega’s regime and his promise of justice. At the very least, we expected some declaration of the government’s political will to attempt to clarify the crime. However, during the investigation of the killing, no National Police officials or members of the paramilitary who had been deployed and were at the crime scene were ever detained or processed under the law. Instead, two youth of Afro-descendent – Brandon Lovo, 18, and Glen Slate, 21 – were arrested in Bluefields, two weeks after the murder.
Four and a half months later, Lovo and Slate were declared guilty of the murder of Angel by a criminal judge in Managua, where the trial took place. They’ve been sentenced to 23 and 12 years in prison respectively, while the reporter’s family members maintain that the authorities are protecting a “uniformed murderer”. In calling for justice, Gahona’s family members have been persecuted by the regime and have had to seek asylum in Costa Rica and the United States.
The trial for the death of Angel Gahona should be analyzed as a case study showing the due process violations and the collusion that exists in Nicaragua between the Police, the DA’s office and the Supreme Court to deny the right to justice. These are some of the violations that were lain bare to the public view:
- The judicial process was carried out behind closed doors. Only the government media had access to the hearings. The human rights organizations and the Inter-disciplinary Group of International Experts were not allowed to observe the proceedings.
- The lawyers for the defense of Lovo and Slate, and the legal representative of Gahona’s widow in the trial received death threats.
- The prosecution presented a version of events, and a body of evidence that had no logic or veracity. The prosecution alleged that the trajectory of the shot that killed Gahona was southerly, and not heading north as the videos of the event show. They place the supposed shooter at a point opposite to the place where the line of fire was supposedly established.
- At the trial for Gahona’s murder, the prosecution presented 36 witnesses and a body of evidence regarding the events. None of these were able to place the presumed shooters – Lovo and Slate – at the scene of the crime.
- The prosecution alleged that the shot that killed Gahona came from a homemade weapon. However, ballistics experts have demonstrated that a handcrafted gun doesn’t have either the precision or the potency to kill a person who is 100 meters away. The judge blocked the testimony of the defense’s technical expert.
- The prosecution presented as “definitive” evidence a homemade gun found in the ocean. However, the defense noted that the gun had no fingerprints on it, nor were any remains of gunpowder found on the hands of Lovo or Slate.
Brandon Lovo and Glenn Slate are the first political prisoners condemned to prison by a dictatorship that has charged them, without proof, for the death of one of the victims of their own massacre. There’s a dual precedent here, because it leaves in impunity the murder of a journalist, and at the same time imposes a pattern of covering up the repression and criminalization of the protests. This precedent is now being extended to the cases of more than 380 prisoners, of which 229 are currently being processed in Ortega’s courtrooms.
Despite this intensification of repression, the independent press maintains unchanged their commitment to a free press. The selective attack that began on April 18 with physical aggression towards reporters has given way to systematic policies against “enemy” journalists, that include assaults and death threats, abductions and illegal detentions, defamation campaigns, destruction of radio stations, economic blackmail against the media outlets, and acts of intimidation and political spying.
Paradoxically, the press has ended up strengthened due to the empowerment of citizens on social media, and every day, more reporters and media outlets refuse to censor themselves. For these reasons, the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) has awarded the independent press of Nicaragua the 2018 Press Freedom Grand Prize, honoring the courage of the reporters and editors who continue to inform the public under extreme conditions of repression.
Nevertheless, the road to democracy and justice will require extraordinary support from the international community. Given the collapse of the justice system and the rule of law, Nicaragua needs an International Truth Commission, with Ortega out of power, to reestablish the right to truth and justice.
For now, Ortega can fill the jails with political prisoners like Brandon Lovo and Glenn Slate, condemned for crimes they never committed, while his regime clings to force, in hopes of some kind of negotiation that will grant impunity for their own crimes. But “the lives of those who died protesting against a dictatorship and the voices of those who today are in prison for calling for freedom and democracy aren’t negotiable,” as the mother of a jailed student told me. “We would never accept an amnesty, that leaves these crimes in impunity,” emphasized the spokeswoman for the Committee for the Freedom of the Political Prisoners, which is demanding the annulment of all the trials spearheaded by the dictatorship.
That’s also the legacy that Angel Gahona left us as Nicaraguan journalists: the commitment to continue reporting the truth, and to reestablish the right to justice without amnesty or impunity.