At 11:15 pm on Thursday, December 13 of last year, the National Police stormed the editorial offices of Confidencial and Esta Semana, the media outlets that I have been directing for more than twenty years.
Without presenting a court order or the mandate of any authority, the armed officers detained the private security guards, violently knocked down the doors, and for more than four hours ransacked our newsroom.
When I managed to enter the offices at dawn the next day, I found that all the computers, editing equipment and television filming equipment had been stolen, as well as our institutional documentation, our accounting records and our private correspondence. Some hours later, on the night of Friday the 14th, the police returned to occupy our building. And until today it’s still occupied manu militari, executing a de facto confiscation.
The blow against Confidencial’s newsroom is not the worst nor the last aggression of the regime of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, against the independent press in Nicaragua.
A week later, the police assaulted the 100% Noticias cable television channel, took it off the air and arrested its director Miguel Mora, along with Lucía Pineda Ubau, the station’s news director. Both journalists are now in the midst of a politically motivated trial, accused of “conspiracy”, “terrorism” and “incitement to hatred”; all for practicing journalism.
In Nicaragua, journalists and the independent media represent the last reserve in the defense of freedoms.
Until April 18, 2018, Ortega governed in collusion with big business, with a corporatist scheme that favored economic stability and private investments at the expense of democracy and transparency. The State maintained a pattern of intimidation against the press and severe restrictions on access to information, but tolerated criticism from some independent media. Why the virulence of the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship against the press now? Because for the first time in eleven years of authoritarian rule, the political power of the dictator is at stake.
The rebellion of April of last year was born as a spontaneous protest against social security reforms that, when repressed with extreme violence, led to the citizen demand for free elections and for the resignation of Ortega and Murillo. The independent press and cell phone communication became a formidable vehicle of citizen empowerment that multiplied the resonance of the protest. As a result, an institutional dictatorship that was conceived in 2007 to govern without democratic opposition collapsed in the face of mass discontent and gave way to a bloody dictatorship.
In this extreme situation, journalists and the independent press represent the last reserve in the defense of freedoms. If they are silent, if we are silent, the regime may prolong our agony. Our resistance, on the other hand, encourages the hope of a political majority that urgently demands democratic change.
The criminalization of independent journalism that Ortega practices today, as in the South American military dictatorships of the seventies, symbolizes the culmination of a repressive escalation against the press.
In an event that recalled 1979, when the National Guard of Anastasio Somoza executed ABC News reporter Bill Stewart, reporter Angel Gahona was shot dead in Bluefields in April of last year while he was broadcasting on Facebook Live. Likewise, Radio Darío, in León, was burned down and destroyed and the television channels were censored. Since the moment that people wrested control of the streets from the State-party-family system, journalists were declared “the enemy” by the regime. From April 2018 to January 2019, the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation has registered more than 700 attacks against the press.
Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Organization of American States (OAS), which monitors the situation of press freedom on the continent, told me in an interview that the suppression of freedom, that “in Venezuela took several years “, in Nicaragua has been “concentrated in six months, in an almost brutal way”. The OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has documented the four stages of this process.
First was the armed repression and “Operation Clean-up” against the barricades, executed by police and paramilitaries and which left more than 325 dead. Then came the persecution of those who participated in the protests, with the arrest of more than 700 political prisoners.
The third phase has been the imposition of a de facto state of emergency when, without declaring a state of emergency, the National Police prohibited civic marches and eliminated the rights of assembly, petition and free movement guaranteed by the constitution.
The resistance of the Nicaraguan press is crucial so that the crimes that the dictatorship seeks to hide are made known around the world.
Finally, in December of last year, the annulment of the main non-governmental organizations that promote human and political rights was decreed, and the attack was launched against the independent media. The final attack against freedom of the press and freedom of expression has gone to the extreme of pursuing as a criminal offense the act of waving the blue and white national flag in public spaces.
It’s ironic that a regime accused of perpetrating crimes against humanity and suppressing all freedoms tries to justify its actions by claiming that the demand for political reforms to call early elections amounts to a “coup d’état” ”
Nicaragua’s dilemma today is whether the negotiation of reforms leading to free elections will be done with or without Ortega and Murillo, who after the massacre are politically and morally incapable of continuing to govern. The outcome will depend on whether it’s possible to generate the maximum degree of simultaneous national and international pressure needed to force a political solution and thus reduce the costs of suffering resulting from repression and economic collapse.
Two months after the assault on Confidencial and Esta Semana, I direct from exile in Costa Rica, our publication and video program. Our staff remains divided for security reasons between Nicaragua, under the siege of the regime, and four countries. Our challenge every day is to continue reporting the truth while circumventing government censorship through the Internet and social networks.
The resistance of the Nicaraguan press, with the support of the international press, is crucial so that the world knows the crimes that the Ortega dictatorship seeks to hide. In this way, we fortify the foundations of a change with justice.
In this upstream battle for the truth, we are inspired by the legacy of my father, journalist Pedro Joaquin Chamorro. Before his murder 41 years ago by assassins of the Somoza dictatorship, he proclaimed: “Freedom of the press is the first of all freedoms.”
While this flame remains lit, I am convinced that tomorrow we will tell the story of how we buried another dictatorship in a peaceful way, so that this time, as my father dreamed, “Nicaragua will once again be a republic”.
*First published on February 18 by the New York Times in Spanish