The Media Today

Q&A: Cinthia Membreño on the global network helping journalists in exile

November 29, 2023
Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the director of Confidencial, peers into his ransacked office in Managua. Photo by Oswaldo Rivas

On the night of December 13, 2018, Nicaraguan police arrived at the offices of Confidencial, a multimedia news outlet. They were on a mission to plunder. They took computers, TVs, documents, and recording equipment. They left no file cabinet unopened, no whiteboards uninspected. The next night, they came again—this time, not for the things Confidencial possessed, but the space it held them in. The building was seized. Confidencial staff would never be allowed to return. 

Confidencial, one of Nicaragua’s leading independent publications, had been reporting all year on the government’s violent suppression of a popular protest movement. Since April, university students had rallied en masse against President Daniel Ortega’s proposal to reform the country’s social security scheme, which would require greater contributions and give fewer benefits. The government cracked down with militias and paramilitary forces. Hundreds of citizens were killed; hundreds more were detained without trial. Facing wide-scale persecution, thousands of journalists and members of civil-society and opposition groups fled the country.

Confidencial’s staff faced a difficult choice. Nobody wanted to leave their home, but there were children to consider, as well as their own safety—reporters were coming under threat for doing their jobs. “And so we concluded, ‘We need to move, because this is no longer sustainable,’” says Cinthia Membreño, a staffer at Confidencial. “We do a greater work in society if we’re not in jail.” Throughout the next year, Confidencial staff relocated to Costa Rica. In 2020, Confidencial reporters returned to Nicaragua, but in 2021, they were forced to flee again. Their offices were raided again. The publication’s editor, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, was charged with an array of financial crimes. He fled the country again, this time for good.

Last year, Confidencial cofounded the Network of Exiled Media Organizations with two other media outlets that had been similarly forced to operate in exile because of repressive regimes: Meydan TV (Azerbaijan) and Zamaneh Media (Iran). The group later expanded to include two more exiled outlets: Meduza (Russia) and Democratic Voice of Burma (Burma). The members share best practices on how to produce journalism in circumstances where they are cut off from their sources and audience, and offer one another technical advice and moral support. They also, crucially, share tips on how to run a sustainable business while operating at a remove from the people they cover. I spoke with Membreño, who now runs Confidencial’s membership strategy and is the outlet’s representative to NEMO, on what it takes to maintain a media company in exile. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

AR: What was it like when you first moved to Costa Rica? How did your journalism have to change?

CM: We had the amazing support of Teletica, one of the biggest TV media outlets in Costa Rica. They said, “You can come and have your meetings and be here for as long as you want.” And they had this really big studio, so we could record our shows there. Free office space. And also, we got mental health support, because it was necessary. Not a lot of newsrooms in these situations actually think of this, which I understand, because there are so many other things that you have to solve. But luckily we had help in this regard, and I think that helped the team stay together and continue doing their work, even though the situation was so traumatic.

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As far as the journalism, we have a very loyal audience, including our sources. There’s this network that we have cultivated throughout the years. People really wanted to help, to share reliable information to counteract the misinformation that the government was trying to promote. So even in exile, we have sources inside the government who will share documents that would allow us to do things like investigate how the regime has hired families close to the president to work in institutions. But I do have to say that it has become a lot harder because now people don’t want to give their names. People who are quoted in our coverage—once the government sees that name, they could immediately go to jail. 

Has that actually happened? 

It happened with a lawyer who talked to one of my colleagues about a trial against some of the dissident students. The next day, she was put in jail. So there’s a lot of fear. I don’t know if there’s a general understanding of what it actually takes to do journalism in these circumstances. Even when you’re doing something that is not explicitly political. For example, you’re doing a special report on Nicaraguans abroad, and one person who is identified by name tells you, “I really respect you, but sorry, I cannot be associated with Confidencial.” We don’t live in an ideal scenario. We live in a police state. 

How did the Network of Exiled Media Organizations come together? 

I met Sudeshna [Chanda, from Zamaneh Media] in Amsterdam, and she wanted to talk about reader revenue strategies. The conversation grew in the direction of how hard it is to talk about these things with a media outlet that operates in a normal context, instead of a colleague who is doing it in the same tense situation as you are. We talked about how it would be fantastic to do the same with other exiled media outlets, because exiled media is scattered all over the world. There are some challenges, like language and cultural barriers and the lack of spaces where exiled journalists can meet—and so we thought, why don’t we do a podcast and distribute it? That evolved into the idea of creating a network, because as a network we are stronger, and we could give audiences, donors, and policymakers a broader perspective on how necessary it is to support exiled media. If these organizations disappear because they are not sustainable, or because their employees disappear, the consequence is that these societies where these outlets are from are left in the dark. 

Has it helped to be able to share your experiences with other outlets going through the same things? 

Oh yeah. For example, Meduza was declared persona non grata in Russia. And this is more or less the same narrative that the Nicaraguan government has about us. So we talk a lot about what is happening to one another—things like, Okay, if our websites are blocked, what do you advise that we do? What are the technical aspects that we should take into account when this happens? How do we tell people, you know, “Go to this website, and then activate this option to actually navigate our content”? We’ve also talked a lot about sustainability, because this is one of the biggest challenges that we face at the moment, especially in exile. We are in a completely different market, with completely different potential advertisers. With operational costs going so high, what do you do to actually diversify your business model so that you are not so reliant on grants? 

Can a publication from Nicaragua really have lessons for one exiled from Russia, or vice versa? 

You take what you think is replicable or adaptable, and then you run your experiments and see what happens. For instance, Radio Zamaneh has an opinion panel as a way of counteracting the shrinking of civic space in Iran. They have created this so people can share their views on any topic that affects the country without fear. In Nicaragua, people are also afraid to share their opinions because of government harassment—and so we thought we could replicate this for Nicaraguan audiences. With the guidance of Radio Zamaneh, we built our own opinion panel.  

I noticed that Confidencial has managed to build a robust membership program while in exile. Is there something about being exiled that’s triggered a groundswell of audience support?

We have a saying that’s roughly translated as, “Certain disgraces are a blessing in disguise.” We had already been talking about reader revenue before we were raided, but we were a bit timid in the sense that we didn’t know what people were going to say when we asked them for money. We lost the highest form of paid advertising, which is TV. And subscriptions were shrinking. So we did a donation campaign for a year. There were good and bad months, but the highest peaks were happening when our team was getting attacked. People were really eager to help.

What’s next for NEMO? Do you have plans to grow?

Our goal right now is to do advocacy work and to help each other and hopefully to bring on more organizations to become members. But we don’t want to grow too fast. One reason is that this is voluntary work. And so we’re taking time away from our day jobs to do this. Maybe in the future we can think differently. But for now, we’re more about helping create awareness, so that society understands that it is so urgent to support exiled media outlets. And it has to be now. It cannot be tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Because democracy depends on the existence of these media outlets—all media outlets, but especially exiled media outlets.

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Update: This post has been updated to clarify Membreño’s professional history and the circumstances of Confidencial‘s exile from Nicaragua.

Ayodeji Rotinwa is a CJR fellow.