Maria Lilly Delgado never wanted to leave Nicaragua. As a veteran reporter, she had covered human rights in her beleaguered country for decades. And Delgado had an important side gig, too, training other journalists for a prominent foundation.
But last May, state prosecutors hauled her in twice for questioning in a politically tainted case, then slapped her with a travel ban – a sign of trouble to come. Delgado had to act.
“Just because I demanded the right to attend with a lawyer on my side, the prosecution office changed my status from a witness to being investigated,” Delgado told VOA.
“It has been one of the most difficult decisions in my life. You don't want to leave the country you love, the job you love and everything that you love.
“But it was about my freedom.”
The freedom Delgado prized, however, is a disappearing if not completely vanished concept in Nicaragua, where de facto dictator Daniel Ortega has crushed political opposition and taken sweeping measures to wipe out independent or opposition media.
The result has been a massive exodus of Nicaraguan journalists. More than 120 have left the country in the last four years, rights groups say, under forced media closures, economic pressures and the regime’s repressive “foreign agents” and fake news laws.
Nicaragua today is one of the world’s worst places for press freedom, according to the Paris watchdog group Reporters Without Borders – ranked 160 out of 180 countries and territories in the group’s new 2022 report. And it’s not only journalists who are fleeing.
“Emigration has increased exponentially,” RSF said in its report. “The state of mind within Nicaragua is a mixture of fear of repression and hopelessness, with countless young people expressing their desire to leave the country on social networks.”
The émigré reporters
Delgado, 49, now lives in the United States. Her transformation to émigré reporter reflects a phenomenon that goes beyond just Nicaragua, mirroring the circumstances in Russia, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Belarus and other territories where autocrats rule.
Delgado has reported in Nicaragua for more than 25 years, and she said the media climate in Nicaragua has always been hostile, though more intensely so since 2018.
As a correspondent for the U.S.-based Spanish-language Univision network, she always had to look over her shoulder on the streets of Managua, the capital.
“You wouldn’t know what could happen to you, because the riot police and paramilitary forces were everywhere,” she said. “They would make themselves visible to intimidate us and those we were interviewing.”
Exile brings different challenges.
Delgado co-founded the website Huellas De Impunidad (Traces of Impunity) shortly before leaving and continues reporting for the site, which specializes in documenting human rights abuses. Working from the U.S., though, adds the burden of distance.
“As risky as it was, when I was in the country, it was easy for me to get first sources for my stories,” she said. “But now, I have to chase four or sometimes even more sources to confirm one story. The process is much longer and obviously harder.”
She feels an added duty to explain what’s happened to her profession.
“Since the same thing is happening to journalists in places like Russia, Hong Kong, Venezuela and Cuba, the international community should understand what is happening to journalists in Nicaragua and find ways to help them.”
Interview as evidence
Another Nicaraguan journalist, Cindy Regidor, is a reporter and editor with Confidencial, which presents a daily video report broadcast on YouTube and other social media.
Regidor moved to Costa Rica of her own volition, but many of her colleagues were forced to join her there after the site’s offices were ransacked by the police last May.
Fear of reprisal makes it dangerous for people inside Nicaragua to open up.
“The hardest part right now is that sometimes we have different sources that can confirm that something is happening, but none of them are willing to go public about it or go on the record,” said Regidor, 33.
“It’s even harder for our TV show because some people are like, ‘OK, I can give you this interview but only for the text version – I don't want to go on video,’ because it entails a great risk for them,” Regidor said.
So, protecting sources has become a top priority, particularly after Maria Oviedo, a prominent human rights activist, was jailed after appearing on Regidor’s show.
“She was arrested a week after we hosted her on our programming, where she talked about human rights abuses in Nicaragua,” Regidor said. “The court used the interview as evidence against Maria Oviedo. It was very hard.”
Oviedo has been accused by the government with the crime of spreading false news, a charge denied by her lawyers. Rights groups say she is one of at least 170 political prisoners, including journalists, in Nicaragua.
The politics of news
Politics and journalism have long been intertwined in Nicaragua.
In Delgado’s case, the interrogations that led to her departure were related to the case of journalist and former presidential candidate Cristiana Chamorro, director of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation for Reconciliation and Democracy.
The foundation, which champions free speech, is named after Chamorro’s mother, herself a former president. Cristiana Chamorro and two foundation staffers were also covered by the same travel ban as Delgado and were arrested last June.
Delgado had been a consultant to the foundation since 2020, training young journalists on audiovisual reporting as well as journalism ethics.
“I don’t understand why they included me in this repressive measure along with Cristiana and the other two staff members because I was just a media consultant with the foundation, not a staff member,” she said.
Ortega’s drive to eliminate virtually all opposition or critical voices ahead of last November’s election may explain it. Ortega won a fourth presidential term, although the voting was widely declared a sham.
In March, another in a series of critical reports by the United Nations’ human rights monitors alleged a pervasive “pattern of serious violations of civil and political rights” aimed at politicians, journalists, rights activists and civil society groups.
In August, the government refused to provide newsprint to 95-year-old La Prensa, the country’s major opposition paper, forcing it to stop publication except online.
Police then raided La Prensa’s offices, arresting the paper’s manager, Juan Lorenzo Holmann Chamorro, a cousin of Cristina Chamorro. In March, he was sentenced to nine years in prison on disputed allegations of money laundering.
Over the years, a number of influential media outlets, including Regidor’s Confidencial, have been connected with the Chamorro family. The Chamorros have opposed Ortega’s rule since 2007, when he returned to power a second time.
Cristiana Chamorro also was sentenced in March to eight years in prison for money laundering and other crimes, which she denies.
The power of law
A government cybercrime law, passed in October 2020, makes it illegal to propagate fake news, although the law doesn’t specify what is meant by the term.
“So essentially, anytime independent media published anything and the government disagreed with it or it cast the government in a bad light, they would just say it's fake news and then imprison or fine the journalist who published it,” said Aliza Appelbaum, a senior director at the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) in Washington, D.C.
“So, it essentially criminalized any sort of opposition reporting,” she told VOA.
Later that October, the government unveiled a “foreign agent” law that makes it illegal for media outlets and civil society groups to take money from outside the country.
“We had a partner organization that we worked with, and they had to shut down,” Appelbaum said. “A lot of other human rights organizations and [non-governmental organizations] in Nicaragua had to shut down, and this was all happening in the first part of 2021 as Ortega prepared to essentially rig the election in his favor.”
The Nicaraguan Embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.
A shred of hope
This was the environment Delgado confronted last May, when prosecutors called.
“In Nicaragua, there is a cocktail of repressive measures,” she said. “The government can use administrative pressure, judicial pressure. It can attack independent media and journalists using the police or paramilitary forces.”
After the government froze her bank account, Delgado decided to leave even if it did violate the travel ban.
For security reasons, Delgado declined to share details about how she left her country and asked VOA not to reveal her whereabouts in the United States.
While she continues to adjust to her new life in America, Delgado remains hopeful.
“I left a whole life behind,” she said, “my family, friends, and a long career in journalism. My hope is to return to them at some point.”
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