One year ago, journalist Miguel Mendoza was banished from Nicaragua without the opportunity to say goodbye. On Feb. 9, 2023, Daniel Ortega's regime freed 222 political prisoners, sent them on a plane to the United States and stripped them of their nationality.
In that group was Mendoza, who spent almost two years in prison. The journalist was arrested on June 21, 2021 and then sentenced to nine years in prison for having allegedly committed, according to the Nicaraguan justice system, the crimes of conspiracy and dissemination of false news.
“I have been here for a year and it seems to me that this year has gone by quickly. It seems like a month or two months have passed since our release and we are still carrying these consequences of prison. Physical consequences, but mostly mental,” Mendoza told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).
Mendoza spent 598 days in the “El Chipote” prison, known for the torture carried out there. There he lived, according to his denunciations, with little access to sunlight, isolated, in a cell full of insects, without access to a toilet, without the possibility of knowing the time or being able to read.
“In Nicaragua the escalation of criminal repression is brutal. Superior to any other. The methods used by Ortega and Rosario Murillo [vice president and first lady] are brutal, they give no respite and they happen every day. Today it dawns and tomorrow there is another incident,” Mendoza said.
For the Nicaraguan, there was no specific moment or reason that led to his confinement and subsequent banishment, but rather a series of situations. Despite being a sports journalist, he denounced human rights violations and was critical of the Ortega government on his radio program and through his Twitter and Facebook accounts.
As Mendoza told LJR, despite the threats he received, he never imagined that he would be one of the first journalists to be sent to prison.
“I said: 'There are still very well-known people out there.' In fact, once talking to colleagues I told them: 'when they put Carlos Fernando Chamorro in prison, the next day we will all run.' That was our measure. What I didn't imagine was that the same day they went for Carlos, they would put me in prison," he said.
Despite what he has experienced, Mendoza has not let fear affect him.
"I do not regret anything. I was doing journalism, I wasn’t making up news,” he said.
The journalist confessed that before being released from prison, the first thing he thought was that they were taking him to house arrest. He said he did not process he was free until some time later.
“It is not something that is processed quickly. It wasn't that I said 'I'm already on a plane, I'm going to freedom.' No, I processed it about a week later. After a week I realized that I could continue, I could organize myself, I could get tools and I could continue practicing,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza was just a child when the Popular Sandinista Revolution (RPS) triumphed in 1979. His decision to be a journalist was influenced by his consumption of the few media outlets that existed in his country in the 1980s and above all by his desire to write sports crónicas.
“In 1981, one of my brothers had a shoe store. They played the radio and I started listening to the sports program Doble Play [Double Play] directed by journalist Edgar Tijerino. That's how my interest in baseball caught on and I became an everyday listener,” Mendoza said.
In 1989, evading military service, Mendoza moved to Managua to enroll at the Central American University (UCA) and study journalism.
“I had outstanding grades as a high school student, but I was very good at math, I even won an Olympics. My teachers were surprised when I opted for journalism, because they said it had nothing to do with numbers,” the journalist said.
Upon entering the working world, Mendoza began on his path as a sports reporter on the government channel, then in a newspaper, until in 1995 life led him to work with his childhood idol Edgar Tijerino, on the same program he listened to while growing up: Doble Play. He was there for 26 years, and left only upon being arrested.
“We talked about everything on that program. It was an independent program where Edgar paid for the space, so we didn't have to be accountable to the media owners. I felt free to say things,” Mendoza said.
In 2023, Mendoza was awarded the Special Citation of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize. Journalist Nayeli Roldán, from Animal Político of Mexico, also received the Special Citation.
According to the Cabot Jury, the citation “honors journalists from Nicaragua and Mexico, countries where independent journalism is under threat, for their commitment and dedication to their work.”
The journalist, in his speech during the award ceremony at Columbia University in New York, made a comparison between the moment and the sport that has marked his career: “this is my home run, this is my world series and in New York.”
Mendoza expressed to LJR his enthusiasm for the recognition and explained that in his speech he wanted to highlight the media crisis in his country, which is marked by persecution, lack of freedom of expression and now exile.
The journalist is currently in the United States under humanitarian parole and in the process of applying for political asylum. He cannot return to Nicaragua but remains as connected as possible to his country.
“I watch the baseball games in Nicaragua, I follow the boys who come to [box] here, I follow Nicaraguan sports, I follow political events, I read the independent media that are in exile. The only thing I don't do is view the dictatorship's propaganda media,” he said.
The light blue and white colors of the Nicaraguan flag accompany him behind many of the interviews he gives or publishes on his YouTube channel, El Informante. His content on other social networks also continues to focus on Nicaragua.
“I haven't said goodbye, every day I think about what I would do if everything changed in Nicaragua. Yesterday I was just talking with Margin [my wife] about how to decide whether to stay or return immediately, about the things that were left unfinished. Every day my daughter remembers her school, her language,” Mendoza said. “The truth is that I have not said goodbye and I think that when I let [Nicaragua] go, if that situation ever arises, I will rest.”