To speak of Nicaragua and its journalism is to think inevitably of persecution and exile, but above all of courage, resistance and reinvention. It was precisely on these topics that four Nicaraguan journalists spoke about during the 16th Ibero-American Colloquium on Digital Journalism on April 16, in the panel "Nicaragua: Journalists released from prison and banished."
Dagmar Thiel, director of Fundamedios USA and who moderated the conversation, began by pointing out that the best way to describe Nicaraguan journalism is with words like "to survive and to reinvent oneself." And if the journalists on the panel made it clear that despite the obstacles (such as raids on media outlets, theft of raw materials and supplies), threats, exile, and even the banishment of recent days, "the dictatorship has not managed to silence us."
However, Juan Lorenzo Holmann, Miguel Mendoza, Martha Irene Sánchez, and Aníbal Toruño spoke about the challenges they currently face in continuing their work and what the international community can do to help at this time.
During 19 months in El Chipote prison, sports journalist Miguel Mendoza was constantly asked why he started talking about political issues considering the beat he covered. "I am more of a citizen than anything else," Mendoza said. As he explained, especially after April 2018 — a time of the largest citizen uprising and government repression — he did not want to be like some sports journalists who "are in a bubble." That's why he made use of his social media to denounce "what was happening," including the murder of young students and citizens in general, he said.
From the first day he was released from prison for being one of the 222 political prisoners banished and sent to the United States, Mendoza began to publish on his social media what was happening in his country. He has a program on YouTube in which he interviews other released political prisoners and wants to continue doing journalism. However, exile has not been easy, among other issues, because of his economic situation. In fact, he said he’s considered doing other types of work and doing journalism in his "spare time."
That’s why he calls for greater support for independent journalism: “God willing [all journalism in Nicaragua] will not shut down. Because if the people in charge of financing all the media of those who are in exile and are struggling [do not support it], then the dictatorship will win because the media will go blank. It will shut down because one is obliged to support oneself.”
Juan Lorenzo Holmann, CEO of La Prensa, the oldest newspaper in the country and the last print newspaper in the country until a couple of years ago, spoke along similar lines. Holmann, like Mendoza, was one of the banished political prisoners and is also in the United States trying to carry on with the newspaper, now in digital form.
La Prensa, which is 96 years old, represents the history of Nicaragua, according to Holmann. That is why his goal is not only to make it to 100 years, but to surpass it. Holmann said proudly that despite the fact that their facilities were raided and robbed, they have not been silenced.
"Independent journalism will never be silenced. This is something that is not only La Prensa's responsibility. It’s the responsibility of many independent journalists who have accepted this challenge and have done so with great courage and excellence, with dignity," he said. "I believe that Nicaragua is the only country or the one country in Latin America that has more journalists working in exile [...] Because we have a country there — it’s true that we’re on the outside — but that country has been kidnapped. We, through our work, have the duty, hope and commitment to rescue this country in order to return and start building again the society we all dream of. A society in which we can all express ourselves freely without fear that someone may be following us or persecuting us. Or that we will once again suffer in exile, in jail and may even lose our lives."
His call for help is aimed at three groups: His readers, his colleagues and organizations able to provide media funding. To his audience he asks for them to continue their support, but especially to pay for information. To other journalists he asks them not to stop covering Nicaragua, to see that country as a kind of mirror to determine what can happen elsewhere in the region, but particularly not to lose focus on what is happening. And, finally, he asks organizations or foundations to support independent journalism, especially those who are in exile, due to difficulty in obtaining money.
For Aníbal Toruño, owner and director of Radio Darío, financial support is also a among his primary requests for help. Throughout the history of his radio station, the station has been destroyed six times, including two fires. Toruño, before this "permanent exile," had to leave Nicaragua due to different attacks against him. Last Feb. 15, he was declared a traitor to his country and he was stripped of his nationality. This was followed by other actions such as freezing his accounts, occupying his children's house, and eventually raiding the facilities of Radio Dario, which the government would convert into a police station.
Due to these attacks and its license revocation in 2018, Radio Darío saw the need to transition to digital. "It is undoubtedly one of the most difficult experiences, particularly demanding," he said. Now, from exile, they have tried to continue reporting and, as in the case of La Prensa, they also proudly said they’ve managed to continue doing so. "The great challenge and the great victory we’ve had, is that they’ve not been able to silence us. We continue to overcome censorship, we continue to reinvent ourselves to find ways and means to be able to continue reaching [people]."
However, funding has been the most difficult issue. “If there was one thing we had as a media outlet, it was that we were competitive. Our articles, our programs, our newscasts were good and are still good. To make matters worse, we don't have a country. So, as a result, we don’t have any advertising or revenue generation," he said.
Like Holmann, he called for financial support from organizations, but also from the public, so they pay for information.
For Martha Irene Sánchez, director of República 18 and president of the organization Periodistas y Comunicadores Independientes de Nicaragua [Independent Journalists and Communicators of Nicaragua] (PCIN, by its Spanish acronym), in addition to financial support, help for journalists in exile should also come from governments.
Echoing the words of another Nicaraguan journalist, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, during ISOJ, she said the situation of many journalists is no longer an exile due to the crisis, but rather a "permanent exile."
"We have to move on from surviving to living, because we cannot continue to be victims. It’s also up to us [to decide] what role we’re going to play in this dictatorship, that has taken too much from us. And not only those issues that concern us, such as freedom of the press and freedom of expression, but it has even extended to our families. Therefore, as part of PCIN, we also issue an important call that we want to continue practicing journalism, but to do so in dignified conditions, that dignify us as people," Sánchez said.
In this sense, for Sánchez, it is necessary that governments "make a real commitment" to exiled people. She said that, in many cases, they are in "a waiting room of uncertainty" for five, ten or even 15 years to [finally] remain in a country permanently.
"We cannot continue with that uncertainty. We’ve already been kicked out of our country. As don Aníbal [Toruño] said, we have no country. We need migratory security for us and our family," Sánchez requested.
Sánchez, who has also tried to maintain a news outlet from Costa Rica, mentioned the journalists who remain in Nicaragua and who carry out "catacomb journalism": In hiding, without a byline for their articles and under fear of being persecuted. For that reason, she also proudly highlighted what has been achieved by Nicaraguan journalism both inside and outside the country.
"The categorical message we have for this dictatorship is: You imprisoned us, you murdered us — as in the case of our colleague Ángel Gahona —, you threw us into exile, but you have not silenced us," she said.