Media in Exile Under Dictatorship, the Last Reserve of Freedom

The Golden Pen of Freedom is an award to the Nicaraguan press in exile and to all imprisoned, persecuted and threatened journalists.

from the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) at a time when freedom of the press and freedom of expression are under brutal attack in my country Nicaragua, while there is a process of criminalization of independent journalism in several other countries of Latin America.

It is an honor that I receive together with my colleagues of Confidencial, who make it possible for us to continue doing quality journalism in exile; and I share it with all the independent media from Nicaragua, whose resistance also in exile, represents the last reserve of freedom under a totalitarian dictatorship.

I dedicate this award to all Latin American journalists facing political persecution and imprisonment such as: 

Victor Ticay, Nicaraguan journalist sentenced to 8 years in prison for disseminating images of a religious procession on his Facebook account.

José Rubén Zamora, director of El Periódico in Guatemala, a world press hero, sentenced to 6 years in prison for investigating and denouncing corruption. 

Cuban journalist Mayelín Rodríguez, sentenced to 15 years in prison for broadcasting a video of the protests in Camaguey in 2022

And to all the journalists who are seriously threatened, such as

Gustavo Gorriti and the team of IDL Reporteros in Peru; 

The team of Armando.Info, in Venezuela; 

And my colleagues of El Faro in El Salvador.

The Golden Pen of Freedom belongs to all of them. This recognition encourages us not to give in to censorship and self-censorship, and to do more and better journalism, which is the only defense we have to protect freedom and democracy.  

Statelessness is a crime against humanity

A year ago, on February 15 2023, my wife and I, along with other 92 Nicaraguan citizens were stripped of our nationality, rendered stateless by the dictatorial regime of Daniel Ortega. 

We were declared traitors to the homeland, deprived of our political rights, our names and identities were erased from the civil registry, and our property was confiscated by the state, including our social security pensions. 

The list of 94 includes civic leaders, human rights defenders, several catholic priests, and 11 journalists and directors of exiled media outlets, including myself from Confidencial. 

Our only crime has been to do journalism, to investigate and denounce corruption, state crimes, and serious human rights violations in Nicaragua. And above all, not to remain silent, despite censorship. 

Six days earlier, on February 9, 2023, another 222 people, all political prisoners, were released from prison, deported to the United States, and stripped of their Nicaraguan nationality. 

Among those released from prison were the seven aspiring presidential candidates, whom Ortega imprisoned to annul the November 2021 elections, in which, like Vladimir Putin in 2024, he reelected himself without political competition. 

Among the political prisoners were also 12 people linked to the media, a sports writer and blogger, the general manager of the newspaper La Prensa, the founder of cable news channel 100 % Noticias, and my brother Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, winner of this prestigious award the Golden Pen of Freedom in 1982, now a politician and also a columnist and board member of La Prensa.

He was imprisoned after the television networks CNN and Univision asked him in an interview if he would be willing to accept a nomination as a presidential candidate of the opposition, after all aspiring candidates were already in prison. For the dictatorship, his crime was to have answered affirmatively.

All the 222 political prisoners had been convicted without any evidence for alleged crimes of “conspiracy against national sovereignty”, “money laundering”, or “spreading fake news.” Most of them were held in a maximum security prison for up to 600 days.

How can a dictatorship, in an act of political vengeance, strip more than 300 hundred citizens of our nationality, something that is prohibited by the Constitution of Nicaragua, and by United Nations international conventions?

The truth is it cannot. I am, and will always be Nicaraguan, despite this crime against humanity. Thanks to the immense solidarity of the international community, Spain granted me its nationality, and now I am a Nicaraguan traveling with a Spanish passport.

The April Rebellion and the attack on the press

The severe human rights crisis I’m describing began in April 2018, when a national protests exploded across Nicaragua, with citizens demanding justice and free elections. The April rebellion meant 100 days of civic insurrection: large demonstrations, university occupations, barricades, and thousands of citizens armed only with their cell phones, demanding the ousting of dictator Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.

The dictatorship’s response was a bloody massacre that left more than 350 people murdered with impunity, thousands of arbitrary detentions, and tens of thousands of exiles. There were also two National Dialogues, in which the government committed to restoring freedom, but never fulfilled that commitment. 

From the moment Daniel Ortega returned to power in 2007, through elections, he imposed a relationship of blockade and harassment against the independent media. Ortega attacked and intimidated the press but tolerated its existence. 

However, when the protests broke out in 2018, and he felt his power under threat, he turned the independent press into an enemy to destroy. 

The repression against journalists included the assassination of Angel Gaona; physical assaults against reporters and the destruction of media outlets by paramilitary groups; television censorship; and customs blockades to prevent newspapers from getting paper and other materials. 

All this culminated in the closure and confiscation of media outlets, the imposition of new repressive laws, and the imprisonment of journalists. 

My newsroom, Confidencial, was confiscated and seized by the police twice. First, in December 2018, and second in May 2021, when the Police once again stole all our personal documents, computers and TV equipment. Despite all that, we never stopped reporting and broadcasting, not even a single day, by using digital platforms and social media.

Daniel Ortega also confiscated the cable TV channel 100% Noticias and the newspaper La Prensa. But he has never been able to silence journalism itself, and the media continue to report from exile.

The regime has also shut down more than 50 local radio and television stations, many of them related to the catholic church, and more than 200 journalists have been forced into exile. 

Some of them have reorganized around some 25 digital media outlets, mainly in Costa Rica, the United States, and Spain. However, more than a third of exiled journalists have had to take on other jobs to survive, or have left the profession for fear of reprisals against their families.

The criminalization of press freedom and freedom of expression

For 6 years now, in Nicaragua we have been living under a police state, which has crushed all democratic freedoms.

There is no freedom of assembly or association, nor freedom of religion in Nicaragua. In 2021, the regime erased the possibility of holding free elections, and since 2022 it has increased its relentless persecution against civil society, SHUR shutting down more than 3800 non-governmental organizations, including religious organizations, private universities, and business associations.

Once again, the jails are full with more than 140 political prisoners and more than a 100 citizens are under a system of de facto house arrest.

Under this totalitarian system, journalism done from exile remains the last reserve of all our freedoms.

In Nicaragua, there are no longer foreign correspondents or independent sources to whom facts, data or analysis can be attributed. All news sources, without exception, request anonymity as a condition to inform or give their opinion to the press.

This double-sided criminalization of both freedom of the press and freedom of expression with the purpose of silencing journalists, news sources, and freedom of opinion, represents the latest stage in a long process of demolishing the rule of law in the last 15 years.

Our television programs have been banned from broadcast and cable television, but we continue to reach a growing audience through our YouTube channel and Facebook.

Social media represents an extraordinary vehicle for overcoming censorship, but it has also become a space for disinformation and political polarization that competes against the independent press.

I faced the agonizing dilemma of being illegally detained and silenced in prison while being innocent, or to escape to another country to continue practicing journalism and to be the voice of many others. 

One is never prepared to go into exile. But on June 15, 2021, my wife and I decided to cross over to Costa Rica, through blind spots, to escape an imminent capture, and to preserve my freedom. Now my entire newsroom, and practically all independent media, are working from exile.

The challenges of the press in exile

Exile is no longer a temporary or emergency situation that forces us to leave and relocate to another country. It’s now a permanent, long-term condition that poses immense challenges for journalism. I´ll mention five: 

First, the challenge of preserving security; physical security, internet security, and providing security to our sources in the country. 

Reporting on Nicaragua from outside the country requires cultivating sources that are actively at risk under the police state. We must guarantee secure channels of communication to protect our sources.

Second, we also have to raise the standards of verification and corroborating anonymous sources in order to continue publishing reliable information.

We are journalists, not activists. And our main mission is to maintain the credibility of the press at all costs, even during the worst conditions of political polarization.

Our main challenge, every day, is not to immerse ourselves in the bubble of exile, but rather to continue investigating and recounting the crisis of a totalitarian family dictatorship. The public corruption and extortion against businesses and citizens; the persecution against the Catholic Church; the erosion caused by the regime’s political vigilance against public officials; the mass exodus of Nicaraguans; and the stories of pain and hope in our daily lives.

Third, we also face the challenge of continuing to innovate in digital platforms to strengthen our relationship with our audiences. When the rule of the law has collapsed, we only depend on our audiences to defend journalism and our own credibility.

Fourth, we must continue to promote collaborative journalism and transnational investigations with the regional and international press.

Last, but not least, we face the challenge of the financial sustainability of journalism in exile. The crisis forces us to look for new models of economic management to finance the independence of our media through international grants, audience contributions, and commercial monetization.  

But this also demands a paradigm shift for philanthropic foundations and international aid agencies that support independent journalism. It becomes necessary to recognize that the survival of the press in exile, not only in Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela, but also in Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and other countries is a democratic imperative that requires long-term support strategies.

None of our journalistic investigations about corruption and violations of human rights produced any change in the public policies of Daniel Ortega’s autocratic regime, which is not designed to be held accountable. However, many of these stories are valuable inputs for the report on crimes against humanity in Nicaragua produced by the Group of Experts on Human Rights of the United Nations.

Together with the families of the victims of the repression, and human rights defenders, we journalists are documenting the facts and the truth to lay the foundations of memory and justice as one of the pillars for the restitution of democracy in Nicaragua.

The resistance of the press in exile under a dictatorship is not enough to clear the way for democratic change, but as long as we continue to do good journalism, it will keep the flame of freedom of the press, as the first and the last of all freedoms.

As my father, the journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, assassinated in 1978 by the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza proclaimed, when we recover our freedom “Nicaragua volverá a ser República”. “Nicaragua will be a Republic again.”

Thank you very much. Buenas noches. 

*Speech by Carlos F. Chamorro, founder and editor of CONFIDENCIAL, upon receiving the Golden Pen of Freedom 2024 award from the World Editors’ Forum and the World Association of Newspaper Publishers in Copenhagen, May 27, 2024.

This article was first published in spanish confidential