MANAGUA, NICARAGUA - Nicaragua's best-known daily newspaper La Prensa is aiming to expand its page count and possibly re-hire some laid-off newsroom staff after an 18 month government-enforced blockade of newsprint supplies.
Nicaraguan customs officials on Thursday agreed to release an impounded shipment of ink and paper after a communications channel between the government and the country's only remaining national newspaper was reopened.
According to news wires, the government's decision came just days after the Vatican’s top diplomat in Managua intervened on La Prensa's behalf after an editorial warned that the newspaper’s days may be numbered.
“Nicaragua would be the only country in the world that would not have a printed newspaper,” said the storied publication’s editorial board, which has long been an irritant for President Daniel Ortega.
La Presna's imported newsprint shipments were seized in August 2018, shortly after the paper repeatedly called Ortega a dictator following deadly police crackdowns on a wave of anti-government protests over cuts to social security and calls for his resignation.
Ortega's government labeled the uprising a U.S.-financed coup attempt, and its violent response claimed more than 320 lives.
“We have not offered anything in return to the government [for the surprise release of print materials],” said La Prensa Director Jaime Chamorro, whose family bought the publication in 1932, just six years after it was founded.
La Presna editor Eduardo Enrique said the seizure forced rationing of newsprint, cutting its standard 36-page daily edition down to eight pages, sacrificing ad revenue and forcing newsroom-wide layoffs.
Over the weekend, La Prensa executives said they plan conduct a market study to determine how many pages they can print in light of their economic losses. Enrique, who now leads of newsroom of 25 journalists that produce multiple publications, also said they're planning to rehire newsroom personnel lost during the blockade, although he did not give a specific number.
A storied history
“La Prensa used to have a big newsroom with more than 70 journalists," said Emiliano Chamorro, who was laid off after a 25-year career covering political and religious affairs for La Presna.
"It’s the most important newspaper in the country," he said. "With more than 94 years of history, the newspaper has survived three dictatorships—two of Somoza, and the first one of Daniel Ortega in the 80s."
Nicaraguan government officials did not respond to requests to explain why they retained the materials or what prompted them to free it.
Part of broader press clampdown
The violent unrest of 2018 was followed by a severe clampdown on independent media, in which Ortega's security forces raided news outlets and imprisoned journalists.
Since that time, more than 100 journalists have fled the country in the wake of threats, beatings and arbitrary detentions, according to a July 2019 statement by the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Ortega, whose own family presides over a vast media empire, has repeatedly offered assurances that all Nicaraguans enjoy unrestricted freedom of personal expression.
“In Nicaragua there is an absolute freedom of religion and expression,” the president said during a recent presidential speech.
Carlos Fernando Chamorro, director of independent newsweekly and TV channel Confidencial, told Voice of America he hopes the released paper and ink will be followed by a return of confiscated news facilities, including his 100% Noticias television newsroom.
La Prensa executives say they anticipate printing a full edition in coming weeks, but that they must first assess the quality of the recently released paper, newsprint reel, and plate cylinders.
Washington-imposed sanctions on Nicaragua for human rights violations followed the 2018 unrest, which aimed to pressure Managua into easing restrictions on various organizations.
According to Reuters, Michael Kozak, the Acting Assistant Secretary for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said on Twitter that "the long-overdue decision to release @laprensa’s paper & ink from Nicaraguan customs is a step in the right direction."
Managua-based El Nuevo Diario shut down in September after government officials impounded their newsprint supplies. Leaders of both El Nuevo Diario and La Prensa have accused Ortega's government of de facto censorship and “economic asphyxiation” for editorials critical of his administration's response to the 2018 protests.
A report by the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation recorded some 420 press violations between April and October 2018.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranks Nicaragua 114 out of 180 countries in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index, a 24-point drop from its 2018 ranking.
"The persecution of independent media outlets has become much more intense since the political crisis intensified in April 2018," the report states. "...Although the environment is now extremely violent, non-aligned media outlets cannot afford the bulletproof vests and other protective equipment that their reporters need when covering demonstrations."
This story originated in VOA's Latin American Division. Some information is from Reuters. Pete Cobus contributed reporting.