‘Not even Orwell could have dreamed up a country like this’: Journalists flee Nicaragua

On Father’s Day final yr, Octavio Enríquez shared pizza and soda along with his two youngsters. Then he advised them he was leaving.

A Nicaraguan journalist recognized for rigorous investigations, his newest reporting had led him dangerously near President Daniel Ortega, a former leftist revolutionary who dominated his nation — one of many poorest and most corrupt within the Western Hemisphere — with little mercy.

Enríquez, 42, was getting ready a collection of tales that uncovered Ortega’s hyperlinks to almost two dozen companies that had obtained tens of millions of {dollars} in authorities contracts. However the reporter frightened he could be jailed earlier than he might publish.

“Never be ashamed of your father,” Enríquez mentioned as he hugged his youngsters and headed beneath cowl of darkness for a border crossing. “I’m on the right side of history.”

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his spouse and Vice President Rosario Murillo lead a rally in Managua, Nicaragua.

(Alfredo Zuniga / Related Press)

After violently suppressing democratic protests in 2018, Ortega and his spouse, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have tightened their grip on energy, imprisoning political opponents, enterprise leaders and members of civil society and attacking freedom of expression from all sides.

They raided newsrooms, jailed journalists and ordered dozens of stories shops to shut. They pushed a collection of legal guidelines that made it a criminal offense to unfold “fake” information and publish data not licensed by the federal government — and even banned newspapers from importing paper and ink.

The workplaces of Confidencial, the web newsmagazine the place Enríquez labored, had been occupied by police forces and its writer was dealing with cash laundering prices dismissed by human rights advocates as “absurd.”

Then Enríquez was known as in for police questioning over his connection to a nonprofit that skilled journalists — which the federal government claimed was a entrance for the CIA.

He and his spouse, who can also be a journalist, determined the one method he might proceed reporting on Ortega’s funds was if he fled the nation. They didn’t inform anybody the place he was going, not the children or his twin brother, with whom he shared a ardour for social justice and writing.

As Enríquez hiked for hours in the dead of night, reaching security in Honduras simply because the solar was rising, he joined the estimated 200,000 Nicaraguans who’ve fled the nation since 2018, a mass exodus that features at the very least 140 journalists.

A man walks down a crowded street.

Journalist Octavio Enríquez walks via San Jose, Costa Rica.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Instances)

With nearly no impartial media left contained in the nation and overseas reporters banned from getting into, Nicaragua has develop into “an information black hole,” mentioned Natalie Southwick of the Committee to Defend Journalists. Authorities propaganda is all that continues to be. The Ortega household and its allies personal a number of tv and radio channels that painting the USA as “the Yankee empire” and pro-democracy protesters as “coup plotters,” “terrorists” and “termites.”

“Not even Orwell could have dreamed up a country like this,” mentioned Gioconda Belli, a author and former guerrilla fighter who was the president of PEN Nicaragua till the freedom-of-expression group was booted from the nation final yr. “It’s a dystopia. Reality is completely distorted.”

For Enríquez and different newly minted members of the Nicaraguan diaspora, the message is obvious: It’s on them to show the reality of what’s taking place again dwelling.

That mandate is shared by increasingly more journalists lately, as lots of of media staff globally have fled their international locations. From Russia to Afghanistan to Hungary, freedoms are beneath assault as these in energy subvert nationwide narratives for their very own acquire.

The issue is particularly dangerous in Central America, the place leaders in Guatemala and El Salvador have copied a lot of Nicaragua’s novel authorized methods for neutralizing the media and civil society, half of a bigger shift towards authoritarianism within the area.

Even from exile, the dangers of a journalist reporting on an authoritarian state are appreciable.

When Enríquez escaped, touring from Honduras to Bogota, Colombia, and ultimately to San Jose, Costa Rica, he continued investigating, analyzing official paperwork exposing Ortega’s secret hyperlinks to a number of firms. Final August, Enríquez despatched an e mail to Murillo, the federal government spokesperson, asking her to touch upon the proof.

She didn’t reply. As a substitute, police arrived at Enríquez’s dwelling in Nicaragua and pounded on the door. Officers advised his startled spouse and kids that Enríquez was wished once more for questioning.

He knew at that second he needed to do two issues: End his investigation and get his household out.

Man walks by a sign of the president.

A picture of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega appears out from a poster in Managua.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Instances)

Ortega, 76, has been a number one protagonist in Nicaragua’s historical past for the reason that Seventies, when he and his ragtag military of Sandinista revolutionaries helped topple Anastasio Somoza, a right-wing dictator whose household had managed the nation for many years, enriching itself whereas Nicaraguans languished in poverty.

Ortega served as president within the Eighties throughout a bloody civil battle that pitted Sandinista fighters towards U.S.-backed Contra rebels. He was voted out within the 1990 presidential election however returned to energy in 2007. By rigging elections, he has remained president since, changing into the longest-serving chief in Latin America.

A lot of Ortega’s mates from the revolution have turned on him, saying he betrayed their goals of a socialist utopia and has come to resemble the dictator they helped overthrow.

That isn’t the story Ortega desires advised. He has lengthy been hostile to the impartial press, as soon as closing a newspaper throughout the civil battle that he accused of “supporting U.S. aggression.”

However in recent times, reporters had been capable of function kind of freely, and a number of latest on-line shops had sprung up, staffed by a technology of idealistic younger journalists. They had been tolerated by a authorities that wished at the very least the veneer of civil liberties.

An anti-government protest in Nicaragua

An anti-government protest in Nicaragua.

(Alfredo Zuniga / Related Press)

That modified on April 18, 2018, when nationwide protests erupted, spurred, partially, by media experiences a few sweeping social safety reform that may improve taxes and reduce advantages. As outraged residents massed within the streets, police and pro-Ortega paramilitary teams opened fireplace, killing dozens.

Néstor Arce, 31, was livestreaming the protests within the capital, Managua, nonetheless wearing slacks after educating a college journalism class that morning. He recognized himself as a journalist however was attacked 3 times, one in every of dozens of reporters and photographers injured that day.

As Arce reported via months of protests and lethal repression, his colleagues had been ceaselessly crushed and one was shot to dying. When police occupied two information shops and started hauling journalists to jail, he determined it was time to go away.

Arce returned to Nicaragua the next yr to open a information website, Divergentes, with a number of mates. However within the lead-up to the nation’s presidential elections in 2021, Ortega started jailing opponents and resumed his assaults on journalists.

Two of Arce’s colleagues at Divergentes had been known as in for police questioning. Arce realized he was beneath surveillance and didn’t wait round for his summons — he fled a second time.

Man stands next to a tree by the side of the road.

Nestor Arce, 31, a journalist with Divergentes, fled Nicaragua.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Instances)

“Journalism has become a crime,” Arce mentioned. “We had to close before they seized our offices, took our computers and sent us to jail.”

Arce and his workforce settled in Costa Rica, becoming a member of the greater than 150,000 Nicaraguans who’ve fled to this nation, lengthy a beacon of peace and democracy in conflict-ridden Central America.

He and his workforce report from a co-working area in a hip part of the nation’s capital above a preferred espresso store.

Arce, who on a current wet afternoon sipped a mocha latte as he typed on his laptop computer, mentioned he likes Costa Rica, however spends a lot time fascinated about Nicaragua that he generally forgets he’s now not there. He wonders about all of the tales not being advised again dwelling, and in regards to the lies invented by a authorities held to little accountability.

His web site options the information of the day — resembling a surge in remittances from Nicaraguans overseas or the continuing case towards a Catholic bishop whom Murillo has accused of committing crimes “against spirituality” — nevertheless it additionally tackles greater tasks. A current multimedia piece examined, in unprecedented scope, what precisely occurred throughout the 2018 protests.

It named the federal government officers who carried out the crackdown and detailed lots of of prosecutions of protesters on terrorism prices. Video testimony from eyewitnesses was printed alongside tales in regards to the legions of fogeys of slain scholar activists compelled to flee the nation. This yr the undertaking gained the Ortega y Gasset prize, one of many highest awards in Spanish-language journalism.

“We all covered the protests as breaking news,” Arce mentioned. “We wanted to have everything in a single place, and contribute to the construction of historical memory.”

He hopes the collection might be a bulwark towards collective amnesia, and perhaps sometime could possibly be used to assist prosecute those that dedicated crimes. He generally questions, although, the impression he’s having, questioning who can endure longer: authoritarian leaders or a free press.

“Of course there are times when you feel frustrated,” mentioned Arce as he drove via the streets of San Jose with the assistance of a navigation app. “We all think about and dream about a future without Ortega.”

Man driving

“Of course there are times when you feel frustrated,” says Nestor Arce as he drives via the streets of San Jose, Costa Rica. “We all think about and dream about a future without Ortega.”

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Instances)

Lucía Pineda can also be in exile in Costa Rica. She was stone-faced the opposite day as she interviewed the spouse of a political prisoner who has been held in Nicaragua for greater than a yr.

“What impression do these photos give you?” Pineda requested, alluding to 2 footage of the prisoner, NGO worker Walter Gómez. One confirmed Gómez earlier than he was jailed, sturdy and smiling. One other was an artist’s rendition of what Gómez appears like at this time — 60 kilos lighter, with a gaunt face and boney shoulders.

“It’s anguishing,” mentioned Consuelo Céspedes, the spouse of Gómez. “I’m afraid he could die.”

Pineda, 48, has raised consciousness in regards to the plight of the almost 200 political prisoners languishing in Nicaraguan prisons. She was one in every of them.

The information channel that Pineda works for, 100% Noticias, lined the 2018 protests extensively, airing footage of authorities committing human rights abuses.

Police guard a building

Police guard the Managua headquarters of 100% Noticias. Nicaragua’s authorities shut down the station in 2018.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Instances)

It wasn’t lengthy earlier than police turned up at their headquarters. Authorities reduce the station’s sign and hauled away its proprietor, Miguel Mora. As Pineda reported on what was taking place through Fb Dwell, police returned to the station and arrested her. “They wanted to silence the truth,” she mentioned.

She spent six months in jail, a part of it within the nation’s infamous El Chipote jail, the place the Somoza authorities had tortured Sandinista fighters. She was held in solitary confinement and interrogated always, together with 30 instances in a single week.

“You incited violence,” her jailers insisted, saying the channel had inspired protests. “Where did the money come from?”

Miguel Mora speaks to the press after his release from prison.

Miguel Mora speaks to the press after his launch from jail in 2019.

(Related Press )

Pineda and Mora had been launched in 2019. She instantly fled to Costa Rica, the place her mom urged her to alter professions. However Pineda resumed work instantly, relaunching the channel as online-only utilizing computer systems lent by Costa Rican journalist mates.

Pineda took over for Mora after he separated from the channel and introduced he was working for president. He was jailed a second time final yr and stays imprisoned.

At instances, it appears Ortega is extra highly effective than ever, Pineda mentioned. However she is proud that she “did not give Ortega the pleasure of destroying the channel,” now one of many high sources of stories on Nicaragua. The nation is dwelling to six million individuals, with about 600,000 residing overseas. Her web site will get 23 million guests annually.

Woman stands with greenery around her.

Lucía Pineda, director of 100% Noticias, fled Nicaragua after being jailed for six months.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Instances)

Enríquez by no means figured he’d have to rearrange secure homes for his household in Nicaragua. However after the police confirmed up at his dwelling final yr, he had them transfer each few weeks.

It was throughout the time that his twin brother died after contracting COVID-19.Enríquez doesn’t blame Ortega for his brother’s dying, however he says the federal government’s response to the pandemic demonstrated the hazards of a dictator who’s free to spin no matter narrative he desires.

As nations around the globe locked down to assist include the coronavirus in 2020, Ortega assured his nation there was nothing to fret about.

Faculties and companies remained open as Ortega inspired residents to attend concert events, parades and sporting occasions. “If the country stops working, it dies,” he mentioned.

Reporters confirmed how the federal government purposely undercounted infections and deaths. However no person is aware of precisely what number of Nicaraguans have died within the pandemic.

As Enríquez mourned the dying of his brother and saved cash to assist his household depart, he discovered solace in his work. “Journalism saved me,” he mentioned.

He lastly bought his household out earlier than the winter holidays. They crossed on foot into Costa Rica and spent the subsequent few days celebrating their reunion and adorning a Christmas tree.

Woman serving food in restaurant

A Nicaraguan chef now residing in Costa Rica prepares Nicaraguan-style fried meals at her restaurant in San Jose.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Instances)

Enríquez printed his investigation in February. The tales triggered a splash all through Latin America, however in Nicaragua, the president and his household remained silent.

Enríquez was left questioning whether or not the tales had any impression in any respect.

“I believe journalism changes things,” he mentioned. “I just don’t know how quickly.”

However then he remembers 2018, when a protest track emerged as a rallying cry for these marching within the streets. The track referenced an investigation Enríquez had printed a yr earlier about social safety fraud.

Enríquez is aware of that in Nicaragua, it’s too harmful for individuals to speak overtly in regards to the authorities’s transgressions. However he’s satisfied that they’re following the information produced by impartial sources, and that it’s fomenting unrest under the floor, like a volcano that would erupt at any time.