Nicaragua isn’t normal: journalists in a ‘totalitarian state’

Managua, September 2018. Photo: INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images

Nicaragua is at war with itself. On April 18, protestors—sparked by a pension reform widely seen as unjust and emblematic of corruption under President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo—took to the streets of every major city and town. Since then, hundreds of protesters, deemed “terrorists” by their government, have been arrested and tortured. Hundreds more have been killed—some shot by snipers, some burned alive in their homes. Ortega, in power since 2007—a Supreme Court, stacked in his favor, lifted term limits—has always maintained his grip with force. The media, dominated by the state, has nevertheless told a story, echoed by much of the international press, of a poor Central American nation guided by a left-wing revolutionary turned business-friendly centrist, a place blissfully on its way to being a premier destination for tourists and foreign investment. That narrative, which continues to dominate Nicaragua’s airwaves, is now at striking odds with the violent reality.

Many of Nicaragua’s big news outlets are controlled either directly by the government, under the rule of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, or by wealthy moguls with state relations to maintain. Leading TV and radio channels are largely owned by Ortega’s family—his children have become successful businessmen like their father—and the Ortega clan is one half of a media duopoly, with outlets outside its umbrella subject to corruption: money—in particular, the government ad budget—and access to power. On the international stage, the state-backed Venezuelan network teleSUR, Russia’s RT, and the faux-grassroots documentarians of Moscow’s “Redfish” amplify the story told at home. In the early weeks of spring, coverage in pro-Ortega outlets was characterized by omission: everything was fine, a few malcontents aside, and anything else you heard was a lie, paid for by shadowy right-wing elements, including the Central Intelligence Agency, looking to regime-change a government that partners with the Drug Enforcement Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Those journalists telling a different, unfiltered story of an unpopular government at war with its people have been slandered, threatened, and detained. At least one has been murdered: Angel Gahona, in the Caribbean coastal city of Blue Fields. His family says the government did it; the government blames two young men at the anti-government protest Gahona was covering, and convicted them at a trial that the Committee to Protect Journalists dismissed as unfair.

For some broadcasters employed by the Nicaraguan state, the contradictions—between what they were told to say and what they saw—became too much. “I couldn’t go on being a publicist for a government that had caused so much damage to the country,” Eva Torres, until March an on-air reporter at Canal 6, a national television station, says. She’d been in the job for three years, until the anti-government sentiment boiled over. “These days, journalists who work for the government have been turned into public relations people who just try to make a perverse government look good,” Torres explains. The protesters are all right-wing terrorists, for example, or working for the MRS, a dissident Sandinista faction, if not the CIA. Torres, 23, found it to be an impossible fiction to maintain in a country with fewer people than New York City.

“When I quit Canal 6 is when government sympathizers started calling me a ‘traitor,’” she says. “Supporters of the Sandinista government hide behind false profiles on social media to threaten us and accuse us of being coup-plotters and terrorists, among a number of illogical things.” They don’t just talk, either. Two months after she quit Canal 6, Torres went to work for a broadcaster in Rivas, a market town known to tourists as the last stop before Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast, a premier surfing destination. Using fake accounts on Twitter and Facebook, Ortega partisans both threatened her and, taking a page from tactics deployed against the left in the United States, sought to plant divisive fake news—including a story they hoped she would report, about an opposition-aligned professor living in exile in Costa Rica, who was actually (but not, in fact, actually) a government agent.

 

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About half of Nicaragua’s 6.1 million people are the same age as Torres or younger, born after the Sandinistas’ first stint in power—in the 1980s, as a popular, revolutionary force—and coming of age amid Ortega’s consecutive terms as president. During his 2006 campaign, he reinvented himself as a pro-business, anti-abortion Catholic centrist, more liable to be praised by the World Bank than by any socialist. The young people, watching his transformation, went on to lead the protests against his proposed pension reform, which would have hurt the poor and elderly; it was these young people who occupied campuses in Managua, the capital, and who were indiscriminately killed, detained, and tortured when the state and pro-government paramilitaries—the masked, heavily armed men who prefer the term “volunteer police”—took the city back by force.

ICYMI: Across the Language Barrier

The threat of a demographic that cannot be easily won with nostalgia has been met, also, with a squashing of those who would provide a platform to the disillusioned of all ages. “There is a systemic attack” on the press, Wilfredo Miranda Aburto, a correspondent with Confidencial, says. Aburto started out the year covering peaceful protests. “Then it became the bloodiest massacre since the time of the war,” he explains. “And journalists don’t escape that violence.”

In May, Aburto published an investigation detailing how a government sniper’s bullet ended up in an unarmed protester’s head. (According to the United Nations, the vast majority of the more than 300 people killed since protests began died at the hands of their government or its partisans.) His report showed that the bullet came from a high-caliber “weapon of war,” of the sort known only to be in the possession of the state and its proxies. Soon after publication, online threats began: “a campaign to discredit and defame,” he says. After the trolls came the police, who harassed Aburto at his home. “They wanted to commandeer my house and my vehicle,” he says. “Now,” having fled, he adds, “I don’t reveal to anyone where I live.”

 

The Ortega government and its supporters are quick to note they do not have a monopoly on violence in Nicaragua. Opponents of the government have killed nearly two dozen police officers—vigilantes have launched reprisal attacks, with kidnappings and beatings, against suspected Sandinista partisans. Journalists and others aligned with the Sandinistas have been threatened, too. But the state owns by far the greatest share of the bloodshed.

It also has the might to crack down on narratives that counter its interests. 100% Noticias, one of the more popular non-government news stations, was taken off the air in April after it began wall-to-wall coverage of anti-government protests. The same month, an opposition radio station was set ablaze in Leon. In October, the director of Radio Mi Voz was detained. Every week, local journalists tell CJR, a handful of their colleagues are arrested, an increasingly routine form of harassment.

100% Noticias is now back on the air. But Denny Garcia, a correspondent who also reports for Radio Corporación in northern Nicaragua, says that restraints on the press have been constant. In the past, when, instead of softballs, reporters quizzed police officials on unsolved cases, he explains, the response was to boot all but government-backed journalists from law enforcement’s weekly press conferences. State employees of all sorts were forced to shun anyone outside the official press. “They stopped giving interviews to independent media,” he says.

Lately, Ortega partisans have sought to deny Garcia the ability to report at all. “We have been harassed every time we do our television newscast,” he says. “Motorcycles pass by making noise, government militants calling us ‘terrorists,’ calling us ‘vandals’ and a series of other insults.” On a recent reporting trip to San Juan del Rio Coco—a town in the wet, coffee-growing region of northern Nicaragua—Garcia says, police and employees of the mayor’s office began to stalk him and his crew. Then someone from what he calls the “red and black party”—those are the Sandinista colors—“told us we had to go immediately, otherwise they would take our cameras.” They left.

Things were not stellar before, says Oscar Navaratte, a journalist with La Prensa, an opposition-aligned newspaper in Managua. But since the protests in April, “the press has been besieged.” At one rally, Navarrate saw police help a caravan of “volunteers” break into an opposition crowd to crack skulls; when he moved in for a photo, someone took out a 9mm handgun and pointed it at his head. Photographers, he notes, are targeted the most, for their valuable equipment, but also to prevent an internationally viral image—these days worth far more than a thousand words in Spanish. “And the truth,” Navaratte says, “is that journalism in Nicaragua gets more dangerous every day.”

 

Foreign journalists haven’t been spared, either. Tim Rogers, a long-time resident, fled Nicaragua after government sympathizers spread the lie that he was a CIA agent, an allegation also made against Carl David Goette-Luciak, a freelance journalist who was deported after an online smear campaign.

Toby Hill, a British journalist, has been covering the conflict in Nicaragua for outlets such as The Telegraph and The Guardian. He tells CJR that the risks to the press are like nothing he’s seen before. Soon after the popular unrest began, “There was a protest on one of the roundabouts in central Managua”—designed by Nicaragua’s last dictator to discourage public gatherings—“and police responded by driving pickup trucks, with seven or eight police in the back, past the protesters,” he says. “And they just opened fire.”

“At that point,” Hill recalls, “it was mainly rubber bullets.” That didn’t last long. Weeks later, at a rally on Mother’s Day, Hill saw people shot and killed by snipers. (The government has suggested, without evidence, that a right-wing paramilitary group was responsible for those attacks.) “It was so difficult to report, because it was just insane—20 people were being killed a day. I was finding it close to impossible to report with that level of danger.”

He left for a couple weeks, distancing himself from what had become a war zone. He returned to something altogether new. “It’s a very different situation because it’s moved on—it’s that crisis reporting, with this huge potential of gunfire breaking out,” Hill says, from Managua. “It’s a much more totalitarian state, is the feel of it now.” No one talks politics over beers anymore, at least not in public. “Every journalist I’ve spoken to here has faced threats. Some have been shot; some have been beaten on the streets. Constant harassment and intimidation,” he adds. “It’s not a safe place to be working.”

 

It is rarely foreigners who have to fear retribution for their work, however. Several Nicaraguan journalists have fled the country after receiving threats. Mike Espinoza, a former editor of the government-run El 19, now lives in exile; because he couldn’t go on describing protests as an “attempted coup d’etat by the right,” he said in a television interview, he was labeled a traitor.

Still, there remains a group of reporters willing to stubbornly resist the government’s repression. Patricia Martinez, 21, started her journalism career this year, just before the protests began. She writes for Confidencial, covering the social unrest in her country, and reporting on those, like Espinoza, who have been forced to flee it. “I wanted to be a journalist because I want people to know what happens in Nicaragua,” Martinez says. “I’m always scared that practicing my profession will lead to retaliation against me and my family,” she adds. “I live with fear. But I will not stop.”

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Charles Davis is a journalist who has lived in Nicaragua, covered congress for public radio, and reported for outlets such as The Daily Beast, The Guardian, and The New Republic.