The crackdown on press freedom continues to escalate in Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega’s leftist regime, as it tightens its grip on the country ahead of November elections.
Authorities have arrested journalists and seized newsrooms, as part of what some have called a “Cubanización” in the Central American nation. Reporters have been attacked and even killed. Two new laws adopted in October - on “cybercrime” and “foreign agents” - have made it harder for journalists to do their jobs.
Aliza Appelbaum, an ICFJ senior program director, and Luis Botello, deputy vice president of new initiatives and impact, updated ICFJ on the situation facing journalists in Nicaragua. Both have managed ICFJ programs in Latin America, work that spans decades and includes support for journalists in the cross-border network, Connectas. Learn how journalists are adapting to the closing media environment and what ICFJ and other groups are doing to help them:
What is the situation like for independent journalists in Nicaragua right now?
Luis Botello: Independent journalists in Nicaragua are facing one of the harshest press freedom crackdowns in the world. Since the political crisis escalated in 2018, dozens of journalists have fled the country because it has become a crime to report the news. The police have launched a massive manhunt looking for independent journalists, human rights defenders and political figures who oppose Ortega’s regime. Independent news organizations have been taken over by the government and their equipment confiscated. The regime has harassed, jailed, and even killed journalists and others they consider “enemies of the state.” Over the last three years, the Fundación Violeta Barrios de Chamorro has documented 2,500 cases of attacks against journalists, including harassment, arbitrary detention and torture.
Aliza Appelbaum: Even the journalists who have fled the country live in fear: any family members left behind run the same risk of being targeted. And with the presidential election coming up in November, the regime has cracked down even more in anticipation of continued unrest. In May, the government raided the offices of leading publications, including Confidencial, an investigative newsmagazine and longtime ICFJ partner.
What has changed in the last year in Nicaragua?
Appelbaum: In recent months, the risks to press freedom in the country have increased. In October, the Ortega regime pushed through two new laws that have targeted journalists. The first law, against “foreign agents,” prohibits foreign governments and organizations from interfering in the country’s internal affairs. It also urges “foreign agents” to refrain from intervening in internal politics. Among the exceptions are international media and their correspondents, but it is not clear who determines what qualifies as international media or as a correspondent. The result is that it will be more difficult for foreign-based organizations to support independent media and civil society in Nicaragua.
The second law is on cybercrime. The government punishes the spread of fake news with jail time. It has been interpreted as a legal measure to silence social networks and any journalist or media outlet that is critical of the Ortega government. It is not clear who determines what qualifies as fake news, and the result is that the government can decide, and send independent journalists who publish news critical of the regime to jail - a powerful incentive for journalists to avoid criticizing the government.
What worries you most about what you're seeing?
Appelbaum: I am worried about the young people who grew up in a Nicaragua of relative peace and prosperity, who are now being deprived of their rights to freedom of speech and an independent press. I worry also about the escalation, with police and other government forces targeting unarmed journalists who are just doing their jobs. I am most worried that these tactics will be successful, and that it will set the tone for the next iteration of the Ortega regime after the November elections, which many observers anticipate will not be free or fair.
Botello: I am worried about the well-being of the Nicaraguan people, especially those on the front line reporting the news. Some local journalists are still reporting, but under intense pressure - they spend the night in different locations to avoid being detained or beaten up by police. And for journalists in exile, it is also very difficult. Many had to leave their families behind with fear of possible retaliation. Some struggle to sustain themselves and their families while overseas.
How do journalists who have fled the country continue to report?
Botello: Nicaraguan journalists are staying with family members or colleagues who already fled and are living in neighboring countries. In Costa Rica, the local media have even offered office space and equipment to support Nicaraguan journalists.
Even from exile, journalists are connecting with their sources on a daily basis, and using social media to report. Accessing sources and information, even inside the country, is extremely difficult because the Nicaraguan government has tight control over information. So journalists must hone remote reporting skills because access to information is limited and working from abroad makes it even harder to develop sources. But the most important skill local journalists have developed is collaborative journalism. Most reporters in Nicaragua must work together to protect themselves and their sources of information. The use of strict cybersecurity protocols to avoid being targeted has also become vital.
Because of the risks they face, stories are published without bylines to protect the identity of reporters both inside and outside the country. The government attacks journalists daily, calling them “mercenaries.” While this has scared sources, who are increasingly afraid of talking to independent journalists, journalists continue to report. The regime has not silenced the press.
What is ICFJ doing to help?
Appelbaum: ICFJ has a strong network of journalists in Nicaragua, many of whom have courageously continued to report from inside the country during this crisis. With partners, we have trained journalists on basic skills, such as mobile journalism, to help reporters adapt to the new reality so they can continue doing their jobs. We also have funded their investigations, and published them in partnership with Connectas, our partner in the region, on this dedicated website: Nicaragua No Calla (Nicaragua Will Not Be Silent). This helps ensure their stories reach a wider regional audience.
Botello: This kind of multimedia, cross-border reporting has become an important part of telling the story of Nicaragua to a wider regional audience. So we have worked to help local journalists use digital tools to produce more impactful, in-depth reports, even in a country where access to information is limited and government officials don’t talk to the press.
What is being done to help these journalists?
Botello: ICFJ and other organizations are providing technical support including training on security issues, in-depth reporting, multimedia reporting, citizen engagement and media sustainability. Most recently, press freedom groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch are closely documenting attacks against journalists and human rights activists.
Appelbaum: The more people call attention to what’s going on, especially by amplifying the voices of Nicaraguan journalists and activists, the better the chances that the Ortega regime will be held accountable for its human rights abuses.
Photo by Jorge Mejía Peralta from Flickr