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Nicaraguan Journalists Describe 'Atmosphere of Fear'

Nicaraguan farmers exiled in Costa Rica
Nicaraguan farmers exiled in Costa Rica

For journalist Wilih Narvaez, the uncertainty from the risk of arrest or attack is what makes his job difficult in Nicaragua.

On the day that he spoke with VOA, authorities had prevented Mauricio Madrigal, one of Narvaez's colleagues at independent broadcaster Canal 10, from leaving the country.

Narvaez himself has come under attack. Unidentified assailants threatened him and his family and threw stones at his house in Nicaragua's capital, Managua, in February.

"It was an attack on my security," said Narvaez.

The 37-year-old said the attack was typical of the daily threats faced by reporters working for media not aligned with the Nicaraguan government.

He believes it was the result of hostile rhetoric and attitudes that police and officials direct at the media.

"The police say things about us on social media. There is the threat of being arrested, or they could take legal action or just close down our channel. The uncertainty is difficult to deal with," he told VOA in a telephone interview.

As for Madrigal, the editor of Canal 10 show Accion 10, which has one of the biggest audiences in the country, is one of 140 journalists and opposition politicians indicted by the state prosecutor in the past two months. None have been charged.

With just over a month until Nicaragua's presidential and parliamentary elections, the threat of arrest and harassment are affecting coverage of the vote.

Raids and lawsuits brought by President Daniel Ortega's government have made it hard for the press to function, journalists say, while long-running economic hardship has made importing supplies including paper, difficult.

The Ortega administration has been condemned internationally — including by the United States and the European Union — for its crackdowns on opposition parties and critical media.

The government refutes these claims, saying it is protecting the country of 6.6 million from media backed by foreign interests, mainly the U.S.

VOA attempted to contact the Nicaraguan government, but none of its requests were answered.

Climate of fear

Nicaragua shares a rare distinction with China, Cuba and a few other countries in the world: Many of its journalists do not want a byline for fear of what the attention may bring.

One of those journalists, a 29-year-old reporter who works at a news website, said media work under a climate of fear.

"We did a story which was about how the COVID numbers in Nicaragua were a lie. It was well received and showed the truth about what was happening," she said.

"But I did not want my name on the story. They would start to notice I was writing, and it is not worth the trouble," said the journalist, who asked VOA not to use her name or any details that might hint at her identity for fear of harassment.

"There is an atmosphere of fear for journalists who work for independent media," said the journalist. "The police come to the newsrooms and seize equipment or intimidate and imprison journalists. They say they (the media) are working for coup plotters."

She cited the case of the country's oldest newspaper, La Prensa, which in August announced it would cease printing because the government was withholding paper supplies.

The front-page headline of its last edition read "The dictatorship is holding our paper, but it cannot hide the truth."

Ortega accused the paper of lying, saying on the day of the raid that police and the prosecutor's office had found paper.

"When you lie in that way, when you slander the state, you are committing a crime," he said in a speech that same day.

The unnamed reporter, who has knowledge of the incident, said, however, that images of paper taken by police were not accurate and instead showed supplies for magazines and books.

The independent La Prensa is owned by the Chamorros, a prominent Nicaraguan family. Several members planned to run in the elections, Reuters reported, including Cristiana Chamorro, the paper's vice president and the daughter of the late leader Violeta Chamorro, who ended Ortega's first stint in power. ​

'Numerous attacks'

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has described the past two years in Nicaragua as "marked by numerous attacks towards independent journalists and media."

Its March 2021 report cited "recurrent stigmatizing speeches by senior authorities, numerous criminal cases against journalists, harassment of journalists and media, raids, threats, physical attacks, among others."

But Nicaragua's Sandinista government has refuted claims of media repression.

"I think freedom of expression exists (in Nicaragua). There is no control over journalists," Wilfredo Navarro, a deputy for the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front, told VOA. "Go to the U.S, or Europe or Spain. They beat journalists or send them to prison."

In late June, Nicaraguan Vice President Rosario Murillo — who is married to Ortega and has been sanctioned by the European Union for human rights violations — described the media as "chattering magpies" in televised remarks. "Our people know how evil, hypocritical, destructive, criminal and terrorist they are," she said.

VOA attempted to contact journalists working for government-aligned media but received no response.
The pressure and risk of lawsuits has prompted dozens of journalists to go into exile.

Julio Lopez, a radio reporter for Onda Local, and the unnamed digital reporter both told VOA they were aware of several colleagues who have left.

Lopez says he went into exile in Costa Rica after it had become impossible to do his job in Nicaragua.

"They were threatening journalists with court action. When I got to the border with Costa Rica in June, two civil servants were waiting for me. They told me I could not leave Nicaragua," he said. "I decided to leave anyway, and I have been working from Costa Rica since."

Lopez said no arrest warrant or legal action had been filed against him, but authorities still tried to block his travel.

Despite the Nicaraguan government's efforts to exercise greater control over the media, and large numbers of journalists working from exile, Lopez insists that the population can gauge what is really happening through reports on digital media and social media.

"They have tried to silence us, but they have not been successful. It may be harder for people in rural areas to access the internet, but there are some local media there," he said.

VOA's Spanish language division and Houston Castillo contributed to this report. Some information for this report came from Reuters.