Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
The Boston Globe revisits an infamous murder — and confronts its own sins along the way
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
April 26, 2023, 11 a.m.
Reporting & Production

“They have not been able to silence us”: Exiled Nicaraguan journalists go digital to keep their journalism alive

“When the embargo [on ink and paper] started, we began to work hard on strengthening the digital side.”

Journalism across Central America is suffering at the hands of the region’s governments.

El Salvador’s El Faro recently announced that it’s moved its business operations to Costa Rica after years of attacks from President Nayib Bukele. In Guatemala, journalist José Rubén Zamora is imprisoned for publishing an investigation into 144 corruption cases linked to President Alejandro Giammattei; the newspaper he founded, El Periódico, was raided and its bank accounts were frozen.

In Honduras — a country that according to Reporters Without Borders has been “slowly sinking into nightmarish disaster for more than a decade” — the government dismantled an agency designed to protect journalists.

In Nicaragua, press freedom has faced attacks from all sides and is only getting worse under president Daniel Ortega, now in his fourth consecutive term. The country now ranks 160 out of 180 on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. At least 185 journalists have fled the country since 2018, with at least seven going into exile in the first three months of 2023, free press advocacy group Voces del Sur found. As of February, at least 22 journalists had been stripped of citizenship due to their reporting on Ortega’s regime.

Journalists who work through these precarious conditions emphasize that international coverage from mainstream media outlets can help pressure their countries’ governments to reverse course. Such coverage can also influence how humanitarian aid budgets are spent.

At the International Symposium of Online Journalism earlier this month, a panel in the Spanish-language Colloquium on Digital Journalism convened four of Nicaragua’s most prominent journalists, all of whom are living in exile, to discuss the harrowing conditions they’ve lived through — offices being burned down, embargoes on supplies like newsprint and ink, imprisonment for sharing information on social media — and how they’ve innovated to keep publishing.

Below is an excerpt of the discussion of how these Nicaraguan journalists pivoted after being forced into exile, and the challenges they face today. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity, but if you can, you should watch the entire recording of the session here.

The panel was moderated by Dagmar Thiel, the U.S. director of Fundamedios, a free press advocacy group that supports Hispanic journalists in the Americas.

The panelists:

Dagmar Thiel: Let’s talk about how you all have been reinventing yourselves. Anibal, you came from a traditional radio station that was in the commercial center of Nicaragua. Today you’re all digital. How are you reaching your audience?

Anibal Toruño: Since 2018, we saw the need to make a transition to digital. Since [the government] withdrew our licenses to be able to operate in Nicaragua in 2022, that [transition] is one of the great challenges. [As] a traditional medium like radio, which is mainly audio and not necessarily visual or digital, it was a huge effort to understand that we had to make a transition and that the formats had to change. We had to be more audiovisual and make sure our content resided on a web page. There were social media accounts that we had to feed, and for that we had to understand and generate content with new talents to reinforce this new way of communicating.

It has undoubtedly been a difficult and demanding experience. We were thrown into no man’s land. The truth of the matter is that you don’t know you’re not ready until the time comes. At that moment we realized that we had to make a home [online], that our news had to be audiovisual and not necessarily just audio. It was a very fast transformation. It takes a lot of effort and commitment, and also understanding that the struggle that we, the media in Nicaragua, have is Daniel Ortega trying to silence Radio Darío…just like with El Confidencial, just like 100% Noticias, just like La Prensa, just like all the media outlets that have had to reinvent themselves.

The great challenge and the great victory is that they have not been able to silence us and we continue to overcome censorship. We continue to reinvent ourselves to achieve good metrics in this world that is relatively new to us.

Dagmar Thiel: Juan Lorenzo, how did La Prensa reinvent itself with just 12% of its staff?

Juan Lorenzo Holmann: We had announced that we were running out of ink and paper but that we were still in the fight. When the embargo started [in 2019], we began to work hard on strengthening the digital side. When we ran out of paper, we said we would momentarily suspend our print editions, but we would continue [publishing online]. [The government] raided us, they robbed us, they confiscated [supplies]. But La Prensa continues to report.

They will never silence independent journalism. This is something that is not only the responsibility of La Prensa, but it’s the responsibility of the many independent journalists who have accepted this challenge and have done it with great courage. It is true that we are outside of the country, but that country has been kidnapped. But through our journalism, we have the duty to rescue that country — to return and start rebuilding the society we all dream of: A society in which we can all express ourselves freely, without the fear that someone is following us, that we will be persecuted, that we will suffer being exiled or imprisoned or even the loss of life.

Dagmar Thiel: Martha Irene, you have a small media outlet, República 18. As a colleague from Cambodia said, there’s a magical curse of being a journalist — that is, it makes you start a small media company when the big ones are suffering. How are the independent media outlets doing?

Martha Irene Sánchez: The decision to go into exile, which is not easy, in my case was motivated by two reasons. The first was for security, to protect ourselves and our families. Continuing to work in Nicaragua was a risk and an imminent threat to our families.

The second was because being in exile made it possible to continue practicing journalism. I remember my first days in Costa Rica. I said, “What do I do now?” because I came from a TV news outlet and I no longer had that job. I began to get together with other colleagues who were living in forced exile and we said, “We’re going to do journalism. How do we do it?”

We started with Facebook pages, but we continued telling stories about Nicaragua. Some of those stories are about migration from Nicaragua, because in exile we began to find other narratives and realities that perhaps we were not seeing at the time of the most acute crisis.

Leading a media outlet with a small team, [like] República 18, undoubtedly poses many challenges. There are about 30 journalistic initiatives that have been launched by [Nicaraguan] journalists in exile. They started with a lot of conviction, commitment, and volunteerism. However, we know that we need more than conviction, commitment, and volunteerism. We need resources. We have to move from surviving to living. We cannot continue to be victims.

This dictatorship has suppressed too many rights — not only those that concern us, like freedom of the press and freedom of expression, but it has even extended to our families. That is why we also make an important call that we want to continue practicing journalism, but continue doing so with conditions that dignify us as people.

Dagmar Thiel: Miguel, how are you reinventing yourself? Are you still a sports reporter in the United States where you arrived two months ago?

Miguel Mendoza: More than reinventing myself, I think I am continuing the work I was doing. I was released [from prison] on February 9 and from day one, I recovered the passwords of my social media accounts. I started to publish news and share my opinion about what was happening in Nicaragua. It was difficult because I had to catch myself up; I follow baseball and boxing a lot and I hadn’t even watched any sports in the last year.

One of the things I used to ask my wife while I was in El Chipote was if people had unfollowed me on social media. Once, I told her, “If I’m here because of everything I did through social media, it’s going to be a shame if people unfollow me now that I’m here.”

But when I got access to my accounts back, I realized that people had not unfollowed me, but that more had joined me. In the last two months on Facebook, on Twitter, on YouTube, my follower counts have multiplied, and that has motivated me to continue in the trenches — collaborating with my colleagues who are in exile and those who are still in Nicaragua, accompanying them in this struggle to overcome censorship.

I have a small space on YouTube called “De preso a preso.” Because I’m a journalist, it’s better that I ask those [who were imprisoned] about the inner workings of the prison. I have done four [sessions] so far, and with each one there are people who don’t want to talk, but little by little I am convincing them.

The dilemma I have now with my social media is: Which one do I share more? Do I report what continues to happen in Nicaragua or do I give more space to sports journalism? Some people who tell me to focus on sports, but more people tell me to continue doing what I have been doing because I already have been a political prisoner and I have to continue on that path. One dilemma I have is how to differentiate those topics in my social media feeds.

Dagmar Thiel: What are you asking of the international community? How can we help Nicaragua’s independent journalism in this difficult moment it’s going through and has been going through for several years?

Toruño: It has to be understood that we do not have a country. It’s out of our hands. Generally, media companies depended on advertising. La Prensa, which is one of the most important media outlets in Nicaragua, depended on advertising. If our news outlets were anything, they were competitive. Our articles, our programs, our newscasts, were and are still good. The big problem that we have is that we do not have a country, so we don’t have guidelines or a way to generate income from our work.

The only thing that we [want to share] is the importance of continuing to support journalism and independent media. Nicaragua’s problem is Central America’s problem. We are going to depend on the audience and create awareness around this to be able to support and contribute to news outlets.

Holmann: I ask big media outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, El País, not to forget about us. Keep the pressure on our country. Keep showing what’s happening to us so that [people] realize what’s going on in our society.

Obviously, we are going through a very difficult situation right now. We cannot sustain ourselves because in our country, those who want to advertise with us are persecuted in the same way that we are. So, unfortunately, right now we need support from government agencies, from private foundations, we need support wherever it can come from. In addition to the support that we must have, we need the support of our society who we owe our work to. That is a symbiosis, that I need you and you need me so that I can help you. Please support independent journalism in Nicaragua.

Sánchez: I would like to focus my appeal to the governments of the countries where we find ourselves exiled. I think it’s important that a real commitment be made for journalists who have arrived seeking international protection and who are in a waiting room with uncertainty of five, ten, or 15 years to have an eligibility interview. We have already been kicked out of our country. We need immigration security for ourselves and for our families.

I especially call on the governments of Costa Rica, Spain, the United States, and Central America, where most Nicaraguan journalists in exile are living now, and on the international community to support this initiative. I believe that it’s possible to advocate for a resolution as soon as possible. I would like to ask our colleagues in the region and around the world to continue to keep an eye on what is happening in Nicaragua, where everything unthinkable has already happened.

Mendoza: A couple of weeks ago I was with a Nicaraguan colleague in Houston. He went into exile in Costa Rica and is now in the United States. He worked on his own media outlet and at a certain point he had to stop because he had no more funding. He had to work to support himself and his family.

I’m going to give it a try. I’m going to establish my own outlet and the web page, and look for funding. I hope that my project does not die. I’m going to hold on until the end and see how far I go. It’s possible that I will do a combination of working a job here in the United States and work on [my news outlet] in my spare time. That [blank] front page of La Prensa when all the supplies were seized: God willing, it won’t be the front page of all Nicaragua’s journalism. Because if the people who are in charge of financing news outlets are the ones fighting while living in exile, then the dictatorship will win, because the media will go dark.

From left: Journalists Miguel Mendoza, Anibal Toruño, Juan Lorenzo Holmann, Martha Irene Sánchez, and moderator Dagmar Thiel during a panel titled “Nicaragua: Journalists Released and Banished” during the Colloquium on Digital Journalism in Austin, Texas in April 2023. Photo credit: Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (hanaa@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     April 26, 2023, 11 a.m.
SEE MORE ON Reporting & Production
Show tags
 
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
The Boston Globe revisits an infamous murder — and confronts its own sins along the way
“They’ve never said, ‘We got that wrong.'”
How Black women get their political news matters for this election
A new study investigates the ways Black women use social media, TV news, and other sources to engage with politics.
Is The New York Times’ newsroom just a bunch of Ivy Leaguers? (Kinda, sorta.)
They’re not a majority, based on a new look at education data, but they are wildly overrepresented.