Centroamérica / Impunity
Ortega Uses Somoza’s Manual to Silence Critics

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Carlos Dada

The Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro arrived at Managua’s judicial complex Monday afternoon to file an injunction. Three days had already passed since police agents entered by force and settled into the offices of Confidencial magazine and the television programs Esta Semana and Esta Noche, all directed by Chamorro.

Thirty reporters, from the international press and the few independent media channels that remain in Nicaragua, supported Chamorro’s arrival. The stood in front of riot police who were under command of the same officer who, on Saturday morning, had ordered the forced evacuation of Chamorro and the majority of these same journalists from the National Police headquarters.

“I come armored with the morals of my parents, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro and Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. That is what protects me to be here,” said Chamorro, when asked if he feared for his security. For those who know a bit of Nicaraguan history, the phrase was poetic, irrefutable, and forceful.

Chamorro is one of the most recognized figures in Nicaragua. His father, also a journalist, was assassinated by henchmen of the dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1978. At that time, the elder Chamorro was director of the newspaper La Prensa and an inflexible critic of the dictatorship. His assassination unleashed massive protests against Somoza, which led to the downfall of the dictator.

Shortly after the crime, Carlos Fernando joined the Sandinista lines and directed the newspaper Barricada. He was Vice Minister of Culture in the first government of the revolution and left power after the electoral triumph of his mother, the liberal Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.

Since the return of Daniel Ortega to the presidency in January of 2007, Chamorro has become the main example of independent and critical journalism in his country, recognized internationally and harassed by political power. Ortega and his party, the Sandinista Front, happy to boast internationally that freedom of expression exists in their country, have purchased some of the main television channels in recent years, the same ones that their children now control; and have created their own media system. They had already hounded Chamorro’s two media channels, but they were never able to shut them down. Until now.

The occupation, without a judicial order, of the Confidencial and Esta Semana facilities, as well as the confiscation of their equipment, give an account of a new chapter of the crisis that has affected Nicaragua since April of this year. A chapter in which the president Daniel Ortega has decided to attack, with or without supporting law, media and organizations that are critical of his government. Ortega has decided to grab hold of Somoza’s manual to silence the opposition. He, who was a political prisoner under the Somoza dictatorship, now has more political prisoners than Somoza. The number of people who have died due to the violence in this crisis, almost all attributed to his paramilitary and police forces, already exceeds 350.

Last week, the Assembly cancelled the legal registration of nine non-governmental organizations, among them the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, the main processing center for reports from victims of the repression unleashed by Sandinista security forces and paramilitary groups since April 18th, when a student protest marked the beginning of this crisis. More than 350 people have been assassinated since then, and the prisons controlled by Ortega now contain 567 political prisoners, according to these organizations.

Protected by the parliamentary vote, the majority pro-Ortega, the Ministry of Governance proceeded to seize the property of these organizations. But the media channels directed by Chamorro were not among them, as they are private companies, not NGOs. In spite of this, the editorial offices of Confidencial are now occupied by heavily armed police that prohibit the entry of journalists.

On Thursday night, uniformed agents invaded the facilities and took all of the equipment: more than 20 computers, television cameras, audio equipment and all the documents they found, including invoices, receipts, and the archive. The following night they returned, expelled security guards, and prohibited access to journalists and employees. Since then armed police agents stroll the halls or watch television on the only screens that were not taken.

Exiled from their editorial offices, the journalists, administrators, and producers of Esta Semana and Confidencial have continued their work from where ever possible: their homes, borrowed computers, a hotel room on the only two computers they were able to save, or the studios of Channel 12 where they have limited access.

On Saturday, from a hotel room, reporters and editors met to agree on the contingency plan, how to continue publishing without an office and without equipment. They’re still doing it. “The editorial office is in the soul, in the brain of the journalists,” said Chamorro in front of the courts when they asked if the occupation of the offices put at risk the production of information. “We will continue working from wherever we can.”

On Sunday night, from another hotel room, the journalists Wilfredo Miranda and Néstor Arce uploaded the program Esta Semana to Youtube and Facebook in addition to the television transmission on Channel 12.

“Our offices are occupied illegally by the National Police, as a consequence of the repressive escalation of the dictatorship,” said Chamorro in the opening of his Sunday program Esta Semana, recorded in a studio that Channel 12 had obtained for them. Next, he recounted the last offensive of the Ortega apparatus, including the closure of seven non-governmental organizations. One of them is the Center of Investigations for Communication, CINCO, whose board of directors includes Chamorro, but whose facilities are found elsewhere, far from the offices taken by the police.

On Saturday night, another television channel, 100 por ciento Noticias, opened its news with the headline: “Carlos Fernando Chamorro, his wife and journalists accompanying him, are assaulted by the police.” That morning, Chamorro arrived at the doors of Confidencial, accompanied by relatives and journalists who covered the facts, to request documentation that supported the occupation of their offices and to explain to the armed agents that their occupation was illegal. On the other side of the bars, the agents suggested that he ask for explanations directly from the main office of the National Police. Chamorro went there and reiterated his complaint. In response, nearly fifty riot police came out to violently evict everyone who accompanied him. The video, in which one can see the riot police hit the journalists, immediately made it to social media, was the front page of the main newspapers, and was an omnipresent image on the few television channels outside of state control.

“This is not an attack only on Esta Semana and Confidencial,” said Chamorro in his program. “This is an attack on the citizens, on their right to be informed. It is an attack on the freedom of the press, on the freedom of expression and on free enterprise.”

On Sunday night, Miranda and Arce watched the repeated images of the beating that they received from the riot police on television. Néstor Arce still has traces of those blows. Various journalists of Confidencial, especially Miranda, have been the object of attacks on social media during the last few days. They have received threats and their picture has circulated in pages of supporters of the president Daniel Ortega. “I do not go out much anymore,” says Miranda, upset because these attacks against him impede him from reporting on the streets. But what he cannot report today, others do.

On Monday, the thirty journalists that covered Chamorro’s arrival at the courts arranged to meet nearby an hour. They walked together, thirty of them, to the door. A motorcyclist stopped in front of them and took out a cell phone to take pictures of them. The response was unanimous: thirty photography, video, and cell phone cameras pointed back at the motorcyclist. They photographed him too. The scene repeated itself some minutes later, when a riot policeman also took out his cellphone. The journalists formed a line, not much different to the one of the agents, and pointed with their cameras. Nobody moved until Chamorro and his wife left. Then, everyone walked in line back to the same parking lot and left in various vehicles in a caravan. If Ortega has achieved anything, it is consolidating the unity of an incipient union of independent media.

The President’s Motives

Last weekend, while the police were closing organizations and the media, President Ortega was asking for help in Havana. He met with the presidents of member countries of ALBA (Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia) to respond to the Nica Act, the law passed by the United States Congress that foretells individual sanctions against members of the Nicaraguan government and limits international financial activities in the country, including access to loans from international financial organisms. Ortega accused Washington of interference and received the backing of his counterparts in Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia.

Little is left for the Nicaraguan president. The deterioration of his relationship with the United States is occurring alongside the end of his honeymoon with the Catholic Church, and even with the conspiracy that he maintained for a decade with big business. Since the brutal repression unleashed by Ortega against student protests in April and the widespread demonstrations of May and June, the main corporate labor union has distanced itself from the regime.

The closure of the NGOs and of Confidencial, moreover, has provoked strong criticism of the regime by the UN, the OAS, the European Union, various Latin American governments, and journalists from all over the continent. The commander is being left on his own.

“Ortega is a man who enjoys accumulating,” says Sergio Ramírez, the Nicaraguan author and winner of the Cervantes Prize. “He has more than 500 political prisoners, now the closure of all these organizations and media channels. He believes this allows him to negotiate, to stay in power by yielding all of these tokens he is accumulating. He thinks it is possible to return to the status quo that existed before April 18th. But this is impossible. This crisis has a magnitude of such delegitimization, of anti-democracy, of repression, of illegality, that cannot be resolved by returning those pieces. Neither is it resolved with a foreign invasion. The only exit is a political negotiation.”

In this recently opened chapter of a now long and profound crisis, the aggressions against Chamorro and the journalists of Confidencial confirm that the regime is no longer open even to a simulation of the rule of law. It is no longer necessary. Ortega, with Somoza’s manual in his hand, confronts the crisis with censorship, imprisonment, and repression. Carlos Fernando Chamorro follows in his father’s footsteps – the journalist critical of, and uncomfortable for, the dictatorship. Protected by his historical legacy, he is today the great model of Nicaraguan journalism. To touch him is to touch all. This is why journalists from all independent media in the country stand by him. They also protect him.

Translated by Delia Neyra, Center for Latin American Studies, UC Berkeley.

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