By Dánae Vílchez, originally published on the Committee to Protect Journalists website
Miguel Ángel Mendoza Urbina, a veteran sports journalist with over 30 years of experience, made a life-changing decision on April 19, 2018, when anti-government protests erupted in Nicaragua. He realized he could not just focus on sports while his country was in turmoil. Mendoza used his Twitter and Facebook accounts, with a combined following of 144,000, to share news and became a go-to source of information.
Mendoza’s work led to his arrest on June 21, 2021, as part of a broader crackdown on opposition figures and independent media. Charged with conspiracy and spreading false news, he was sentenced to nine years in prison.Less than two years later, on February 9, 2023, Mendoza was among 222 political prisoners unexpectedly released by Nicaraguan authorities and deported to the United States. All of the group, which included La Prensa publisher Juan Lorenzo Holmann Chamorro and five other journalists and media workers who asked not to be named to protect the safety of their families, were stripped of their Nicaraguan citizenship.
Mendoza and Holmann spoke to CPJ’s Dánae Vílchez shortly after arriving in the U.S. about their prison experiences and continued commitment to press freedom in Nicaragua. Mendoza described his release as bittersweet given that his country remained “kidnapped” while he had been liberated. [Read the full interview with Holmann here.]
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Could you talk about your first impressions after arriving in the United States? How do you feel?
I feel extraordinarily good. I spent 598 days in the Nicaraguan prison known as El Chipote. To be here, even though we are no longer Nicaraguan according to the country’s authorities, feels great.
But the truth is that there are things so elementary that one is used to feeling that they were erased. Things as basic as seeing yourself in the mirror, combing your hair, and wearing shoes. I wore shoes [only] four times in almost 600 days.
I think the worst thing that was happening to us there is isolation from our family. [After my arrest it was] 72 days before I could see Margine, my partner. Between August and November 2022, it was 90 days without seeing the family. That is the hardest thing because we did not know what was happening with them, with our people.
I consider myself kidnapped. I do not say that I am a convict or a prisoner or a detainee. I was kidnapped because I was not granted the basic [protections of] the Nicaraguan Criminal Code.
Did you have any idea in jail that something like this release was going to happen?
Yes, we suspected that something was being planned when we suddenly had more regular family visits. They brought my daughter to me on December 7 after I’d been demanding to see her [for] a year and a half. Then they gave us a visit [allowing us to wear] civilian clothes, shoes, and short hair, and they gave us a banquet there — well, food, special food. The visits before were very rigid. Women who arrived, sisters, mothers, or wives, were outrageously forced to undress [for searches], [but] suddenly, we had more relaxed visits. We knew from then on that something was happening.
Can you tell us what happened when they took you to the plane?
When we left the prison that night, they put us in a covered bus so we couldn’t see the streets of Managua. We signed a document authorizing our trip to the United States, which was the moment we [realized we were going there]. I asked them if they had already informed my family because they took us out with nothing, just a pair of pants, a shirt, and a pair of shoes. The authorities immediately told us that we were coming to Washington.
It was a celebration. When the plane took off, we sang the Nicaraguan national anthem, sang some [Nicaraguan] songs, and prayers of the priests. It was a celebration, but also there [was] regret that almost 40 hostages remained, among them the brave Bishop Rolando Álvarez, [sentenced to 26 years in prison on February 10 after refusing to board the flight to the U.S.]. For me, it was bittersweet because I feel that we achieved our liberation, but the country was kidnapped.
What happened on the day of your arrest?
That day there was a person who warned me through a private message. He told me: they are after you and Carlos Fernando Chamorro, who is another journalist. I did not believe that message. It was around 17:00 [5 p.m.] in the afternoon on June 21, . I didn’t get a chance to run because they went after Carlos and didn’t find him, they went immediately after me. I went to a friend’s house. I arrived, and after five minutes, the street was surrounded by police cars, motorcycles, paramilitaries, and a policeman.
A policeman told me, ‘Miguel, come out.’ I came out, and they handcuffed me [and] put me in a patrol car. I only remember the comment made by the driver, who was one of the witnesses at my trial. He said that I was going to jail like Miguel Mora [a former journalist and CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner sentenced to 13 years in prison] for being ungrateful to the commander [Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega]. I obviously did not say anything to him, I just thought I have nothing to thank Daniel Ortega for. I am a journalist. A journalist does not thank anyone, a journalist does his job, and that’s it. They transferred me to jail as if I was a dangerous drug trafficker.
How does a sports journalist become a political journalist and commentator and get accused of conspiracy?
I had been working in sports journalism for 30 years, but I always added a little bit of “political sauce” to my reporting. When the protests of 2018 broke out, I remember opening my Facebook page. I realized followers were telling me, ‘You are talking about sports while so many people have been killed, most of them young college students.’
That’s when I became convinced that it was shameful to keep talking about sports when the country was bleeding. That was my before and after. I started posting the things that were happening.
Maybe I had a little bit of an advantage because I worked in what at the time was the most important television channel in Nicaragua, and I think people saw in me a known face they trusted [for] news and videos. I was the director of a group where many correspondents were scattered around the country.
The government’s incredible frustration is that independent journalists with just a phone and internet — I am not talking about my case — but all independent journalism, defeats them in audience [size].
Why does Ortega want to silence you?
Precisely because that is what dictators are like. They accused me of undermining the homeland. In other words, they accused me of wanting to divide the territory of Nicaragua into two or four parts, and they accused me of belonging to an organized crime gang. My lawyer asked what the gang was, and I realized that the gang was made up of [U.S.] Congresswoman María Elvira Salazar, the former [U.S.] Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the [former] U.N. human rights official and Chilean president [Michelle] Bachelet. I belonged to that gang because I retweeted them.
When there is a strong press, as has happened in Nicaragua in recent years–independent, belligerent journalism of which I am proud to be part–they are afraid. They are naked, they are exposed, and they would like to hide things.
What were the conditions you were kept in, and how did they affect your health?
I am diabetic. I have gout. I discovered that I was [also] hypertensive in jail.
I was kept alone for 313 days in quite small cells with only a bunk bed, a cement cabin with a small mattress as if you were sleeping on the pavement. The sun doesn’t get in there. The air doesn’t get in there. It’s hard to breathe.
There were no toilets. There is only a small hole to relieve oneself with a small basin, and we had to clean it. And that produces diseases. It was like an insect fair in that little cell. As of April 30, 2022, they sent me to another cell, a little bit bigger, with companions. Margine, my partner, told me that I looked [like I’d] deteriorated.
The prison conditions also beat you up. I couldn’t read anything but the recommendations on the label of the toothpaste. We had nothing [else] to read. They had the labels taken off, so we couldn’t even read the brand name of the bottled water company. They took off the labels with the names that our family wrote, so we were not even allowed to read that. I had to calculate what time it was because nobody wore watches. We were not allowed to talk to each other from one cell to another. It was unthinkable. The first year it was unthinkable.
(CPJ emailed Nicaragua Vice President Rosario Murillo for comment on prison conditions but received no reply.)
You talk about how there were many interrogations. What did they tell you?
They told me that I published bad news, that I was making the Nicaraguan people unhappy, that there was a difference between good and bad news, and that I only had to report when they published good news. Journalism does not publish bad and good news, I told them. Journalists publish news. That’s it.
Another comment was that journalism in Nicaragua was accused of being financed by international organizations. They asked me if these groups [had] financed me, and I told them that if they found out that [those groups] had paid my phone bill [or for] data or internet, the authorities could condemn me because they [the groups] did not pay me. I did everything with my own money. They asked me about other colleagues [who] managed to go into exile.
What message would you give to the international community? What should organizations like us do?
I think a lot is being done. I believe that colleagues who are in exile and in Costa Rica have received help, and that is good.
I feel very proud of this profession. As I told an interrogator, I did not expect to be helped. I did not expect to be paid for my work. Some organizations are helping journalists a lot. We chose a career that is poorly paid and mistreated and nobody becomes a billionaire in a profession like this anymore.
There are great journalists in Nicaragua with an enormous work ethic. They have died poor because of their chosen career. But I have received enormous solidarity and support these days that I have been here [in the U.S.]. I realize that many people knew of me because of what I was going through, making me feel it was worth it.
Mine is just a tiny, tiny grain of sand in an immense mountain of the will of many people. And when I talk about journalism, I feel proud to be a journalist, and I feel proud of the work that was done there in Nicaragua, [work that] is still being done now from outside because the dictatorship does not have an easy time with journalism.