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

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica

On Fathers Day this past year, Octavio Enrquez shared pizza and soda along with his two children. He then told them he was leaving.

A Nicaraguan journalist known for rigorous investigations, his latest reporting had led him dangerously near President Daniel Ortega, a former leftist revolutionary who ruled his nation among the poorest & most corrupt in the Western Hemisphere with little mercy.

Enrquez, 42, was preparing a number of stories that exposed Ortegas links to nearly two dozen businesses that had received huge amount of money in government contracts. However the reporter worried he’d be jailed before he could publish.

Never be ashamed of one’s father, Enrquez said as he hugged his children and headed under cover of darkness for a border crossing. Im on the proper side of history.

President Daniel Ortega and his wife and Vice President Rosario Murillo

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

(Alfredo Zuniga / Associated Press)

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

They raided newsrooms, jailed journalists and ordered a large number of news outlets to close. They pushed a number of laws that managed to get a crime to spread fake news and publish information not authorized by the federal government and also banned newspapers from importing paper and ink.

The offices of Confidencial, the web newsmagazine where Enrquez worked, have been occupied by police forces and its own publisher was facing money laundering charges dismissed by human rights advocates as absurd.

Then Enrquez was called set for police questioning over his link with a nonprofit that trained journalists that your government claimed was a front for the CIA.

He and his wife, who’s also a journalist, decided the only method he could continue reporting on Ortegas finances was if he fled the united states. They didnt tell anyone where he was going, not the youngsters or his twin brother, with whom he shared a passion for social justice and writing.

As Enrquez hiked all night at night, reaching safety in Honduras in the same way sunlight was rising, he joined the estimated 200,000 Nicaraguans who’ve fled the united states since 2018, a mass exodus which includes at the very least 140 journalists.

A man walks down a crowded street.

Journalist Octavio Enrquez walks through San Jose, Costa Rica.

(Gary Coronado / LA Times)

With without any independent media left in the country and foreign reporters banned from entering, Nicaragua is becoming an information black hole, said Natalie Southwick of the Committee to safeguard Journalists. Government propaganda is all that remains. The Ortega family and its own allies own multiple television and radio channels that portray america because the Yankee empire and pro-democracy protesters as coup plotters, terrorists and termites.

Not Orwell may have dreamed up a country such as this, said Gioconda Belli, a writer and former guerrilla fighter who was simply the president of PEN Nicaragua before freedom-of-expression group was booted from the united states this past year. Its a dystopia. The truth is completely distorted.

For Enrquez along with other newly minted members of the Nicaraguan diaspora, the message is clear: It really is in it to expose the reality of what’s happening back.

That mandate is shared by increasingly more journalists nowadays, as a huge selection of media workers globally have fled their countries. From Russia to Afghanistan to Hungary, freedoms are under attack as those in power subvert national narratives for his or her own gain.

The thing is especially bad in Central America, where leaders in Guatemala and El Salvador have copied a lot of Nicaraguas novel legal approaches for neutralizing the media and civil society, section of a more substantial shift toward authoritarianism in your community.

Even from exile, the risks of a journalist reporting on an authoritarian state are considerable.

When Enrquez escaped, traveling from Honduras to Bogota, Colombia, and finally to San Jose, Costa Rica, he continued investigating, analyzing official documents exposing Ortegas secret links to multiple companies. Last August, Enrquez sent a contact to Murillo, the federal government spokesperson, asking her to touch upon the data.

She didnt respond. Instead, police attained Enrquezs home in Nicaragua and pounded on the entranceway. Officers told his startled wife and children that Enrquez was wanted again for questioning.

He knew at that time he had to accomplish a couple of things: Finish his investigation and obtain his family out.

Man walks by a sign of the president.

A graphic of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega looks from a poster in Managua.

(Gary Coronado / LA Times)

Ortega, 76, is a leading protagonist in Nicaraguas history because the 1970s, when he and his ragtag army of Sandinista revolutionaries helped topple Anastasio Somoza, a right-wing dictator whose family had controlled the united states for many years, enriching itself while Nicaraguans languished in poverty.

Ortega served as president in the 1980s throughout a bloody civil war that pitted Sandinista fighters against U.S.-backed Contra rebels. He was voted out in the 1990 presidential election but returned to power in 2007. By rigging elections, he’s got remained president since, becoming the longest-serving leader in Latin America.

A lot of Ortegas friends from the revolution have fired up him, saying he betrayed their dreams of a socialist utopia and contains arrived at resemble the dictator they helped overthrow.

That’s not the story Ortega wants told. He’s got always been hostile to the independent press, once closing a newspaper through the civil war he accused of supporting U.S. aggression.

However in modern times, reporters have been in a position to operate pretty much freely, and a bunch of new online outlets had sprung up, staffed by way of a generation of idealistic young journalists. These were tolerated by way of a government that wanted at the very least the veneer of civil liberties.

An anti-government protest in Nicaragua

An anti-government protest in Nicaragua.

(Alfredo Zuniga / Associated Press)

That changed on April 18, 2018, when nationwide protests erupted, spurred, partly, by media reports in regards to a sweeping social security reform that could increase taxes and decrease benefits. As outraged citizens massed in the streets, police and pro-Ortega paramilitary groups opened fire, killing dozens.

Nstor Arce, 31, was livestreaming the protests in the administrative centre, Managua, still dressed up in slacks after teaching a university journalism class that morning. He identified himself as a journalist but was attacked 3 x, one of a large number of reporters and photographers injured that day.

As Arce reported through months of protests and deadly repression, his colleagues were frequently beaten and something was shot to death. When police occupied two news outlets and began hauling journalists to jail, he decided it had been time and energy to leave.

Arce returned to Nicaragua the next year to open a news site, Divergentes, with several friends. However in the lead-up to the countrys presidential elections in 2021, Ortega began jailing opponents and resumed his attacks on journalists.

Two of Arces colleagues at Divergentes were called set for police questioning. Arce realized he was under surveillance and didn’t hold out for his summons he fled another time.

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

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

(Gary Coronado / LA Times)

Journalism has turned into a crime, Arce said. We’d to close before they seized our offices, took our computers and sent us to jail.

Arce and his team settled in Costa Rica, joining the a lot more than 150,000 Nicaraguans who’ve fled to the country, long a beacon of peace and democracy in conflict-ridden Central America.

He and his team report from the co-working space in a hip portion of the countrys capital above a favorite restaurant.

Arce, who on a recently available rainy afternoon sipped a mocha latte as he typed on his laptop, said he likes Costa Rica, but spends so enough time considering Nicaragua he sometimes forgets he could be no more there. He wonders about all of the stories not being told back, and concerning the lies invented by way of a government held to little accountability.

His website features the news headlines of your day like a surge in remittances from Nicaraguans abroad or the ongoing case against a Catholic bishop whom Murillo has accused of committing crimes against spirituality but it addittionally tackles bigger projects. A recently available multimedia piece examined, in unprecedented scope, just what happened through the 2018 protests.

It named the federal government officials who completed the crackdown and detailed a huge selection of prosecutions of protesters on terrorism charges. Video testimony from eyewitnesses was published alongside stories concerning the legions of parents of slain student activists forced to flee the united states. This season the project won the Ortega y Gasset prize, among the highest awards in Spanish-language journalism.

Most of us covered the protests as breaking news, Arce said. We wished to have everything in one place, and donate to the construction of historical memory.

He hopes the series is a bulwark against collective amnesia, and perhaps someday could possibly be used to greatly help prosecute those that committed crimes. He sometimes questions, though, the impact he could be having, wondering who is able to endure longer: authoritarian leaders or perhaps a free press.

Needless to say periodically you are feeling frustrated, said Arce as he drove through the streets of San Jose by using a navigation app. Most of us consider and dream of another without Ortega.

Man driving

Needless to say periodically you are feeling frustrated, says Nestor Arce as he drives through the streets of San Jose, Costa Rica. Most of us consider and dream of another without Ortega.

(Gary Coronado / LA Times)

Luca Pineda can be in exile in Costa Rica. She was stone-faced last week as she interviewed the wife of a political prisoner who has been held in Nicaragua for greater than a year.

What impression do these photos offer you? Pineda asked, alluding to two pictures of the prisoner, NGO employee Walter Gmez. One showed Gmez before he was jailed, robust and smiling. Another was an artists rendition of what Gmez appears like today 60 pounds lighter, with a gaunt face and boney shoulders.

Its anguishing, said Consuelo Cspedes, the wife of Gmez. Im afraid he could die.

Pineda, 48, has raised awareness concerning the plight of the nearly 200 political prisoners languishing in Nicaraguan prisons. She was one of these.

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

Police guard a building

Police guard the Managua headquarters of 100% Noticias. Nicaraguas government turn off the station in 2018.

(Gary Coronado / LA Times)

It wasnt a long time before police resulted in at their headquarters. Authorities slice the stations signal and hauled away its owner, Miguel Mora. As Pineda reported on which was happening via Facebook Live, police returned to the station and arrested her. They wished to silence the reality, she said.

She spent half a year in jail, section of it in the countrys notorious El Chipote prison, where in fact the Somoza government had tortured Sandinista fighters. She happened in solitary confinement and interrogated constantly, including 30 times within a week.

You incited violence, her jailers insisted, saying the channel had encouraged protests. Where did the amount of money result from?

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

Miguel Mora speaks to the press after his release from prison in 2019.

(Associated Press )

Pineda and Mora were released in 2019. She immediately fled to Costa Rica, where her mother urged her to improve professions. But Pineda resumed work immediately, relaunching the channel as online-only using computers lent by Costa Rican journalist friends.

Pineda took over for Mora after he separated from the channel and announced he was running for president. He was jailed another time this past year and remains imprisoned.

Sometimes, it appears Ortega is stronger than ever, Pineda said. But she actually is proud that she didn’t give Ortega the pleasure of destroying the channel, now among the top resources of news on Nicaragua. The united states houses 6 million people, with about 600,000 living abroad. Her website gets 23 million visitors every year.

Woman stands with greenery around her.

Luca Pineda, director of 100% Noticias, fled Nicaragua after being jailed for half a year.

(Gary Coronado / LA Times)

Enrquez never figured hed need to arrange safe houses for his family in Nicaragua. But after the authorities arrived at his home this past year, he previously them move every couple of weeks.

It had been at that time that his twin brother died after contracting COVID-19.Enrquez doesnt blame Ortega for his brothers death, but he says the governments reaction to the pandemic demonstrated the dangers of a dictator who’s absolve to spin whatever narrative he wants.

As nations all over the world locked right down to help support the coronavirus in 2020, Ortega assured his country there is nothing to be worried about.

Schools and businesses remained open as Ortega encouraged residents to wait concerts, parades and sports. If the united states stops working, it dies, he said.

Reporters showed the way the government purposely undercounted infections and deaths. But nobody knows how many Nicaraguans have died in the pandemic.

As Enrquez mourned the death of his brother and saved money to greatly help his family leave, he found solace in his work. Journalism saved me, he said.

He finally got his family out prior to the winter holidays. They crossed by walking into Costa Rica and spent another couple of days celebrating their reunion and decorating a Christmas tree.

Woman serving food in restaurant

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

(Gary Coronado / LA Times)

Enrquez published his investigation in February. The stories caused a splash throughout Latin America, however in Nicaragua, the president and his family remained silent.

Enrquez was left wondering if the stories had any impact at all.

I really believe journalism changes things, he said. I simply dont understand how quickly.

But he remembers 2018, whenever a protest song emerged as a rallying cry for all those marching in the streets. The song referenced a study Enrquez had published per year earlier about social security fraud.

Enrquez knows that in Nicaragua, it really is too dangerous for folks to talk openly concerning the governments transgressions. But he could be convinced they are following news made by independent sources, and that it’s fomenting unrest below the top, such as a volcano which could erupt anytime.

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