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'The Worst Year for Independent Media' in Nicaragua

FILE - A worker prepares a roll of paper prior to running the presses in the La Prensa newspaper printing plant in Managua, Nicaragua Feb. 7, 2020. In 2022, La Prensa was forced to move its entire operation outside of the country.

With an entire newsroom in exile, over a dozen media licenses revoked and more than 120 journalists fleeing, journalists and analysts say Nicaragua is witnessing one of its worst periods for press freedom.

"This is something we have never seen before," Eduardo Enriquez, editor-in-chief of La Prensa, told VOA.

One of Nicaragua's oldest and most recognized newspapers, La Prensa moved its entire operation outside of the country in 2022 due to what it described as "the persecution of the Daniel Ortega regime."

A year earlier, police had raided its office in the capital, Managua, seized its printing equipment and detained publisher Juan Lorenzo Holmann. A court in March 2022 convicted him of money laundering.

In August 2022, Nicaragua's first lady and vice president Rosario Murillo announced that the paper's building would be taken over by the state for use as a cultural center. In remarks to state-aligned media, she described the former newsroom as a place where "crimes against humanity" are fabricated.

Police sit outside the facilities of La Prensa newspaper, a long-standing newspaper critical of President Daniel Ortega, after the Nicaraguan government took over the facilities to turn the space into a "cultural center," in Managua, Nicaragua Aug. 23, 2022.
Police sit outside the facilities of La Prensa newspaper, a long-standing newspaper critical of President Daniel Ortega, after the Nicaraguan government took over the facilities to turn the space into a "cultural center," in Managua, Nicaragua Aug. 23, 2022.

The experiences of La Prensa are not isolated. Several journalists have been detained, and others had licenses revoked.

"2022 has been the worst year for independent media. Many of our colleagues are still detained," said Víctor Manuel Pérez, director of the Independent Journalists and Communicators of Nicaragua, the country's largest journalists union.

Perez cited the case of sports journalist Miguel Mendoza, who in February 2022 was sentenced to nine years in prison for carrying out "acts that undermine the independence of Nicaragua."

Mendoza covered sports but also commented on human rights and politics and had been critical of the Ortega government, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Another well-known media owner — 100% Noticias founder and opposition politician Miguel Mora — was arrested around the same time in 2021 as Mendoza on the same charges.

"The entire criminal process against [Mendoza] has been nothing more than a clear attempt by the authorities to silence anyone who dares to question them," CPJ's Natalie Southwick said in a statement at the time.

The Ortega government did not directly respond to VOA's request for comment.

An emailed response from Murillo, who is also the government's spokesperson, said, "Thank you for your interest and merry Christmas for you and your family."

Licenses revoked

A further challenge for the independent media comes through Telcor, the government-run body that regulates broadcasters.

"Telcor is a political weapon to annihilate independent media," said Lucía Pineda Ubau, 100% Noticias news director. The broadcaster works only as a website now after Telcor revoked its frequency in 2019, a year after its broadcast rights were suspended.

Over the summer, Telcor revoked the licenses of at least 17 media outlets, many of them local radio and television channels. Some were connected to the Catholic Church, which Ortega has accused of plotting against the government.

Radio Darío, a VOA affiliate, was among the stations to lose a license. It was the most important radio station in the country's western region, its director, Anibal Toruño, told VOA.

The station has been running for more than 70 years and in recent years survived an arson attack on its newsroom.

The government alleged that the media outlets had violated several laws and that some had modified "and altered" their frequency, "which constitutes grounds for cancellation."

Toruño said such claims are false, and the real objective was to "silence and shut us up."

But he told VOA, "Far from intimidating us, their actions strengthen us."

'Self-censorship and silence'

The lack of independent radio stations in Nicaragua is being felt in rural communities, which represent more than 2 million people, according to data from the National Institute of Development Information, a government organization in charge of socioeconomic research and the census.

Communities in rural Nicaragua depend on battery-powered radios to stay informed on everything from local news to the weather.

"Sometimes, until we go to the city, we [don't] realize what is going on. ... We don't know what's happening," Isabel Hernández, who lives in a rural area near the city of León, told VOA.

At the same time, the remaining media outlets are limiting coverage.

"The most watched and few TV independent channels that remain in Nicaragua have decided to suspend everything related to political news," said Pedro Vaca Villarreal, special rapporteur for freedom of expression at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The risk of legal action or arrest is having an effect on the country's media, analysts say.

In a report published earlier this year, the nonprofit Voces del Sur [Southern Voices] found "many of the attacks journalists experienced are not visible," because reporters are wary of drawing attention to themselves.

The "self-censorship and silence of the victims" mean the attacks are working to silence the press," Voces del Sur said, adding, "More and more, victims prefer silence … to avoid further attacks," which amounts to threats and risk of arrest.

Self-censorship affects audiences, with Voces del Sur denouncing a lack of access to public information and data during regional elections in November.

International pressure

Pressure is not just restricted to local media.

In September, CNN en Español announced that the government had taken the broadcaster's signal off the air after accusing it of "interference" and "violating" Nicaraguan laws.

Two months later, Ortega's government denied entry to Luis Felipe Palacios, a correspondent for Spain's EFE news agency who has a Nicaraguan nationality.

Palacios had been on a business trip to Panama in November. But when he tried to return on a flight from Miami to Managua, he was notified via email that his entry "had not been authorized."

Vilma Núñez, head of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, told VOA the Ortega administration is turning these practices "into increasingly frequent routines."

"Nicaraguan journalism suffers the most repressive period in its history," La Prensa's Enriquez said. "But not only journalism; the Catholic Church and all of society."

This story originated in VOA's Spanish language division. Cristina Caicedo Smit contributed to this report.