Exile, prison and death: Challenges for journalists in Nicaragua topic of discussion at Ibero-American Colloquium

Exile, risk of arrest, threats against relatives, human rights violations, financial problems: the situation experienced by Nicaraguan journalists is one of the worst in the region, and was at the center of the debate, alongside examples of resistance and perseverance in the face of adversity, during the panel “Journalism in Nicaragua,” at the 17th Ibero-American Colloquium on Digital Journalism, held at UT Austin on Sunday, April 14, 2024.

The panel, moderated by the associate director of the Knight Center, Summer Harlow, included an editor from the most traditional Nicaraguan newspaper, La Prensa, which has just turned 98 years old, and three co-founders of Nicaragua Actual, a website with just over five years of life. The four are in exile, as are more than 240 Nicaraguan journalists, according to a report from the Independent Journalists and Communicators of Nicaragua.

Five people seated in front of an audience in an auditorium, speaking on a panel. A big screen behind them shows images of Nicaragua

Nicaraguan journalists Héctor Rosales, Yelsin Espinoza, Ulises Mendieta, and Arlén Pérez (from left to right) speaking at the 17th Ibero-American Colloquium on Digital Journalism; the associate director of the Knight Center, Summer Harlow, is on the right (Photo: Patricia Lim/Knight Center)



Nicaraguan journalists Héctor Rosales, Yelsin Espinoza, Ulises Mendieta, and Arlén Pérez (from left to right) speaking at the 17th Ibero-American Colloquium on Digital Journalism; the associate director of the Knight Center, Summer Harlow, is on the right (Photo: Patricia Lim/Knight Center)

The first to speak on the panel at the Colloquium was the journalist representing La Prensa, Arlen Pérez. She addressed the difficulties of life in another country, the fear for relatives who remain in Nicaragua, the possibility of authoritarianism reaching other Latin American countries and the uncertain future of Nicaraguan journalism.

Peréz commented on the recent celebratory edition of La Prensa, published in March from within Nicaraguan territory on the San Juan River, which borders Costa Rica, to commemorate the newspaper's anniversary.

“For us it was a challenge to report from the San Juan River, which is Nicaraguan territory. But it was also saying 'it doesn't matter, they've hit us and we're still here.' And the blows are many,” she said.

In 2023, according to Pérez, there were 83 attacks against Nicaraguan journalists, including harassment, official surveillance and verbal attacks, and in January and February of this year there were already 14.

She warned people from other countries to watch out for authoritarian tendencies in their own territories:

“For example, when in Costa Rica they say, "Oh, we are far from that." Yes, but they are already calling it the evil press, they are already using speech against freedom of expression,” she said.

The difficulties of life in exile, she said, range from financial problems to issues linked to the right to stay:

“Costa Rica is one of the most expensive countries and Nicaragua, of course, is a cheaper country. The issue of having your family in another country, taking care of your family, is also difficult. So, that has been very difficult for us. Costa Rican legislation has changed. I went into exile in 2022 and there have been too many changes regarding refugee applications, how you can request it, the issue of how you can travel, or cannot travel,” she said.

Pérez said that, even in exile, journalists continue to censor themselves, for fear of reprisals from the regime of Daniel Ortega and his vice president and wife, Rosario Murillo. 

"No one wants to talk anymore because 'my mother is there, my brothers are there,'" she said.

She concluded by praising her fellow panelists, and observing the difficulties of generational renewal in Nicaraguan journalism:

“I love being with this youth because the boys are an example that journalism can be done from exile. They were born from exile,” she said. “But we are concerned about the generational change. There is no replacement of journalists, we do not have new journalists.”

Calls for freedom

Of the three co-founders of Nicaragua Actual, Héctor Rosales was the first to speak. He mentioned how the website team, launched on the first day of March 2019, had to start producing it from exile just three months after its launch.

Rosales said he recently moved to the United States and said he is committed to continuing to report on Nicaragua, despite it being a difficult mission:

“I have only been living in the United States for four months now under a resettlement program that is similar to political asylum, and here I am resisting. I don't want to leave journalism, but life is also difficult here, it's expensive here in the United States," he said. “But I have a commitment. There is a commitment on our part not to abandon this fight, and our dream is to return to Nicaragua again to exercise our freedoms.”

Just as his two partners from Nicaragua Actual would do, the journalist cited the case of his colleague Victor Ticay, who completed a year in prison on April 6.

“We currently have a journalist imprisoned for a year for the simple fact of covering a religious activity in Nicaragua, the processions. It is precisely Víctor Ticay,” he said. “We want to ask all of you for help to also focus your gaze, your media, on the situation of journalism in Nicaragua, but also to think about Víctor Ticay and his family, a year imprisoned simply for covering a religious activity in our country. And here we say, freedom for Víctor Ticay!”

The next speaker, Yelsin Espinoza, began by describing Ticay's conditions in prison:

“Víctor Ticay's situation is an inhuman, unhealthy situation. Víctor Ticay is fed waste, with cockroach parts. Víctor Ticay is kept in a cell that is not sanitary, that does not have the conditions for a human being to be locked up for a single minute in that cell. He does not have to be locked up because he simply carries out or carried out his work, his profession, and that is why the regime arrested him,” he said.

Espinoza added that the conditions of imprisonment in the so-called La Modelo prison in Managua meant that Ticay developed illnesses.

“Among these diseases are stomach diseases, a product of the advanced level of bicarbonate in the diet that Víctor receives. His family is desperate because, when they manage to visit him, they see him increasingly emaciated, more beaten. They are trying to tear away his humanity,” he continued.

“Víctor Ticay's health, his moral and physical state, is deteriorating and we cannot allow this to continue happening. But our hands are tied and that is the reality in our country,” he said.

In addition to Ticay, Espinoza spoke about the case of Ángel Gahona, killed in 2018 while covering anti-government protests on the Nicaraguan Caribbean coast.

“He was murdered with a shot to the head, gentlemen. Six years and until today, justice and truth in the case of Ángel Gahona do not exist. And every time we have the opportunity to occupy a space like this where you can hear us, those who watch us on television, on the internet, can hear us, we raise our voices and make Gahona's case visible,” Espinoza said. 

The last representative of Nicaragua Actual was Ulises Mendieta, who addressed the situation of journalists still in the country, financial difficulties and lessons learned in these almost five years of exile.

Professionals who remain in the country can no longer write about the most important facts, and are forced to restrict themselves to trivialities, Mendieta said.

“Something that Víctor Ticay did in Nicaragua has been very limited, which is reporting on the street. In Nicaragua, current journalism has been limited to documenting religious issues, sports and events. Because talking about politics is guaranteed prison,” he stated. “In Nicaragua there are no longer newspapers, there are no independent media.”

The journalist spoke of the difficult conditions of those who persevere in trying to be independent from exile:

“We spent two years without a salary. The only thing we received was donations from people. It was for the internet, and we were starting with a donated computer, the donated internet, with a cell phone, an iPhone 6, which we had long enough to have in a museum,” he said. “We were journalists, we didn't know anything about web monetization, administration, project management, accounting.”

However, Mendieta said, journalists managed to overcome this challenge:

“Now we have to do everything. In part it is good because now we know how to do everything, we have our own media outlet,” he said.

The journalist concluded with a reflection on the country's current conditions:

“People are normalizing the lack of independent journalism in Nicaragua. There is only one independent media outlet, but it is limited to entertainment,” he said. “Nicaraguan families enjoy swimming pools. There is nothing in terms of opinion news, politics. And people are normalized to that, sadly. But we have to continue, we have to continue forward, despite all the difficulties.”

The Ibero-American Colloquium on Digital Journalism is an annual meeting of journalists from the region organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. Traditionally it is celebrated on the Sunday following the closing of the International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ) and this year it took place on April 14. A recording of the Colloquium can be found here.
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