Washington, D.C.; March 1, 2020.- Today, March 1st, Nicaragua celebrates National Journalists’ Day. For Nicaragua’s independent press and for Nicaraguan journalists forced into exile, however, there is little to celebrate. The socio-political crisis that has gripped the country since April 2018 has severely curtailed Nicaraguan journalism. Today, Nicaragua’s independent journalists lack the basic protections that would guarantee their ability to carry out their crucial work.
Race and Equality spoke with three journalists, all of whom have suffered human rights violations since the crisis began, about the critical situation in Nicaragua.
Aníbal Toruño: In Nicaragua, there is total suppression of the right to freedom of the press
Aníbal Toruño, the director of Radio Darío in the city of León, finds it increasingly difficult to carry out independent journalism due to increasing censorship, threats, violence, and criminalization at the hands of police, government institutions, and paramilitary groups.
“There is total suppression of our constitutional right to freedom of the press. Not only are there constant threats against journalists, the government recently passed a set of laws that seek to censor not only journalism, but the free expression of all Nicaraguans by controlling social networks and the major means of communications,” said Aníbal, referring to the Special Law on Cybercrime, the Law to Regulate Foreign Agents, and the constitutional reform to introduce life imprisonment as a criminal sentence.
Toruño, his family, and the staff of Radio Darío are under constant assault by the police. Since April 2018, the channel’s office has been raided 125 times. Just this year, Toruño’s home has been raided three times, each time without a legal warrant. “We have learned to control our fear, but it is difficult to see police and paramilitaries outside your house that could attack and destroy it at any moment,” said Toruño, recalling that under the administration of President Daniel Ortega, over 20 media outlets and 10 news and opinion programs have shut down. Furthermore, of the 13 free-to-air television channels that once existed in Nicaragua, only two remain that do not adhere to official government line.
According to Toruño, “field journalism is off-limits” due to the persecution that reporters suffer as they attempt to carry out their work. Radio Darío has resorted to asking other colleagues to go out and gather information. “We are surveilled, persecuted, there is very little space to move, and the work is extremely complicated. If the world does not react, you’re going to be seeing the sun set on one of the biggest ongoing fights for freedom of expression,” he added.
Speaking to his fellow independent journalists, however, Toruño closed with a message of hope: “We all have to rally our strength to keep going, because the night has never defeated the dawn and the dawn might be far off, but it always comes. Our conviction that we are fighting for what’s right must renew our struggle and our perseverance every day.”
Kalúa Salazar: Day and night, the police attack me at my home
Kalúa Salazar, chief press officer for Radio La Conteñísima in Bluefields on the Caribbean coast, told Race and Equality that the minimal conditions to guarantee free and independent journalism no longer exist in Nicaragua. “What we have today are conditions in which only journalists with a political bias can operate. But independent journalists have risen to the challenge, and as result we have what you see today: journalists being charged, imprisoned, and beaten,” she said.
In August 2020, three employees of the city government of El Rama filed a defamation complaint against Kalúa for reporting on corruption in the city government and exposing misuse of public funds. As a consequence, she told Race and Equality, “Since then, the police have come to my house at night and early in the morning, blowing their sirens, sounding the horns of the police cars, making an unbearable noise to prevent me from sleeping.”
The police siege of her home has prevented her from accessing sources to carry out her work, but above all it has disrupted her personal life. “With trucks full of armed police officers outside my house where my daughters are,” she reflected, “the biggest impact is on my personal life, because it affects my most basic concern for my children.”
On March 9th, Kalúa will go to court to challenge the accusations. “I have had to follow every possible legal path to make sure that my case illustrates the ways that my rights as an individual and as a journalist are being violated by this effort to prosecute me for exercising my free expression,” she remarked.
Despite these circumstances, Kalúa intends to continue pursuing journalism in Bluefields and throughout the Southern Caribbean region. For National Journalists’ Day, she shared with Race and Equality the mantra that she uses to motivate herself every morning: “We have a goal – not to bring down the government, but to share truthful information and to be able to criticize any government that violates human rights. We want to be able to go out among the people. We have to be confident and find the strength we need to keep working. They want us to censor ourselves out of fear, but we cannot let that fear overcome us and desist us from our work.”
Lucia Pineda: We keep on resisting. It is our profession, and nobody can stop us
Lucia Pineda, the director of the news channel 100% News, was the victim of one of the most extreme government measures against independent journalism. In December 2018, she was arrested and accused of “proposing, provoking, and conspiring to commit terrorist acts.” Pineda remained in prison until June 2019, when she was released under Nicaragua’s Amnesty Law. She left prison along with 55 other Nicaraguans imprisoned for their participation in the 2018 protests, including the owner of 100% News, Miguel Mora.
“We’re under a red alert – professional journalism is under threat in Nicaragua. There are defamation and calumny trials against journalists, encouraged by pro-government forces, and media outlets are being stolen away,” said Pineda, who left Nicaragua for Costa Rica after being released. From exile, she continues to direct 100% News, which now broadcasts exclusively online. Back in Nicaragua, the channel’s offices were occupied by police in December 2018. They have since been illegally expropriated and converted into a rehabilitation center owned by the Ministry of Health.
As she continues her work, Lucia has become all too familiar with the risks of independent journalism in Nicaragua. “Our team is under constant threat,” she recounted. “They attend a press conference given by an opposition party and the police search them, search their cars, go through their possessions. Our night reporter tells me that the police follow him every day. Sometimes they stop him to question him, and there have been times where they have beaten him.”
“The police see you as an enemy, they attack you to instill fear and try to make you throw in the towel (desist), make you feel that you’re always being watched and that you have to limit what you say,” added Pineda. She shared with Race and Equality that her life has been turned upside-down since her imprisonment. Before her arrest, the 100% News office had been her second home. Today, she must direct 100% News from abroad, and for her own safety cannot return to her life in Nicaragua.
Lucia closed with these comments for her colleagues still working in Nicaragua: “We keep on resisting, fighting for freedom. Someday Nicaragua will thank the press for this work. Around the world, Nicaraguan media is being recognized for their bravery. This is our profession, and nobody can stop us.”
Race and Equality’s Statement
On National Journalists’ Day, Race and Equality salutes Nicaragua’s independent media, who continue to struggle for freedom of the press despite lacking the most basic protections for their work. We call upon the Nicaraguan government to respect the freedom of the press; ensure that journalists can safely carry out their work without attacks, persecution, or threats; and repeal the Law on Cybercrime and the Law to Regulate Foreign Agents, both of which place unacceptable restrictions on the freedom of expression.