An invisible reporter who, in order to continue telling Nicaragua from the field, has to be erased from the map: nobody can know what he does, he does not sign his stories and lives on permanent alert for some source to betray him, for the Government to identify him and go after him, as it has done with more than 200 reporters who have ended up imprisoned or have left for paths towards exile in recent years. A journalist who is diagnosed with ailments related to "living under constant persecution" in El Salvador, where, for her work, she has been spied on, robbed and for which she feels threatened. An editor and presenter who ends up in exile after being armed with judicial cases in Guatemala, a country that has launched a persecution against critical voices, which also includes prosecutors, judges and magistrates who fought against corruption.
They all have something in common: in the face of a reality that persecutes and harasses them, they resist. Central America continues to count on the rise of authoritarian systems that criminalize freedom of the press and expression and turn journalists into enemies of power.
Three journalists tell what it is like to do their job in the Nicaragua of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, El Salvador of Nayib Bukele, and what it is like to tell from exile a Guatemala in which the powers of the State are demonstrating an unwritten pact to stop the fight against corruption and silence critical voices. It is a reality full of challenges in which the internet and social networks become allies to defeat censorship. (The testimony of the Nicaraguan journalist is anonymous for security reasons)
Nicaragua: Writing with a suitcase made to flee the Ortega regime
Anonymous testimony: "Officially I don't even exist"
Under the table where I usually write I have my suitcase made. I put it there, in contact with my feet, in case one day I receive a call – I hope to receive it in time – that alerts me that the Nicaraguan Police want to capture me, as has happened with at least 10 journalists and media executives who have been imprisoned since protests against his regime broke out in April 2018. or that some operator of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo is looking for me. Most of my colleagues who have been convicted were charged with "spreading fake news" or "treason," a pair of laws passed in 2020 to criminalize critical voices.
In the suitcase there are a few changes of clothes, hygiene items, a computer, and my most important documents: passport, vaccination card and a hospital paper that proves that I am a chronic patient for hypertension and heart disease. If I am caught, I will at least have proof that I need the medicine I take daily, as several political prisoners have reported that they do not receive the medicines they require in prison. I think – I want to believe – that having my suitcase ready can save me a few minutes, and that it will help me if I have to hide in a house for a few days, or if I definitely have to flee Nicaragua through paths or blind spots on the border to avoid being caught, as did 185 Nicaraguan journalists who have been exiled since 2018. Just last week, a source confirmed to me that a new group of 11 journalists was fleeing the country.
I am not a criminal or fugitive from justice. I am one of the few journalists left in Nicaragua, trying to tell what happens from the inside, on the ground. But I am aware that at some point he could be impeached by the institutions that should establish justice in Nicaragua and that in reality are controlled like puppets by the presidential couple. There is even the possibility that they will take away my nationality, as they did with about 20 journalists in February of this year. This is the reality that as a Nicaraguan journalist I have had to live.
Since about 10 years ago, when I started working in the media, the journalistic practice has not been easy. At that time, we had problems with freedom of expression and information similar to those experienced by colleagues in other countries in the region. But in the wake of the protests of 2018, when the regime perpetrated a massacre against citizens who took to the streets to demand his resignation, the journalists who cover and document these crimes became adversaries, targets to be attacked.
Harassment against journalists has intensified in the past year. In July 2022, police officers raided the homes of colleagues from the newspaper La Prensa. The reason: they had covered the expulsion of a group of nuns from the country. It was a simple cover of one of the many aggressions against the Catholic Church, another of the targets of the regime. According to the official narrative, the massive demonstrations of 2018 were "an attempted coup d'état" concocted by the bishops, the United States, businessmen, some NGOs and former dissidents of Sandinismo. According to official propaganda, within this supposed scheme, independent journalists are dedicated to spreading fake news to manipulate public opinion. This has reached such a point that statements by politicians or citizens in independent media or international news networks have been taken as evidence for the trials against dozens of political prisoners.
Last July, when police officers chased La Prensa reporters, they also arrived at the home of other journalists. It was the first time I packed my suitcase and I went two months to live in other houses. I didn't see my family and turned down invitations from friends. I couldn't go anywhere. It was a watershed in the journalistic work. We are now aware that going out to report can land us in jail.
I returned home when I felt I could. This feeling of security of returning with tranquility to where I live is an act of faith, like others that I cling to in order to continue reporting and living in these conditions. What frustrates me the most is stopping journalism: going to places, talking to people, interviewing public officials. In other words, exercise my profession without fear and that the sources are not afraid to express themselves either. Fear has rightly taken hold of everyone in Nicaragua, where a statement or mention in a media outlet can land you in a jail cell.
In recent months, I get scared when I consult sources I don't know well. I am afraid that one of them is a supporter of the Sandinista Front, the party in power, and may denounce me for being a journalist. I have continued to report, less and less and with greater planning. I take measures that I cannot detail here because it would put at risk the few journalists left in Nicaragua. But I know that no security protocol is foolproof. On more than one occasion, because of the adrenaline of stepping on the street, I have found myself in a conversation with the wife of a policeman, with a retired military officer or with a member of the Sandinista party. Luckily, it hasn't happened anymore and no one has betrayed me or denounced me for being a journalist. I don't want to resign myself to continue doing journalism locked in a room, but I have to accept that it is increasingly dangerous to go out; Every day it gets more complicated to do my job.
I don't know how many journalists are left in the country. Several of us who are still there have chosen to tell the other colleagues, with whom we do not have much confidence, that we have stopped working on this. We are all alert and suspicious. A week ago, in a raid, they captured some colleagues. In those days, I slept in a safe house in case they came looking for me. They didn't arrive, and that's why I'm still in the country.
I think the most effective security protocol is to "disappear." I am referring to the measure that all Nicaraguan journalists have chosen not to sign their texts. We have stopped publishing our photographs and information on social networks, we do not share news critical of the regime and we try not to attend, even virtually, any activity of journalists' unions.
At the beginning it was difficult to accept that I cannot travel to any journalism festival, or to a workshop outside the country, and even less to receive recognition, because officially I do not even exist. I strive to go unnoticed. Many critics of the regime are in a kind of de facto "country by jail" because of the iron control that exists at the borders and the airport. Journalists are forbidden to go out and our passports are taken away if we are identified by our profession. It is the price we have to pay to still be with our families and see friends from time to time for a few beers.
Another security measure I have taken is not to work in any office after several media facilities have been confiscated by the regime. I write in a room that has a window through which I can see the roofs of neighboring houses. Through that window, after noon, the sun enters directly to the desk where I work, under which is my suitcase. In the city where I live, these days we have a heat wave of more than 41 degrees of thermal sensation that prevents me from working in the afternoons. In spite of everything, my biggest concern is that the alert call does not reach me in time. I fear it will be too late when I realize that the regime's operatives are going to come to raid my house. Being captured is one of my most recurring nightmares in the early hours of recent months, when I wake up startled, babbling a few words.
My family has this fear so internalized that they suggested an emergency escape, which consists of climbing a ladder to get out of a window, and reaching the roof of the neighbors. In one of those houses they are previously warned that I can enter, at any time, through a hole. It is a way out, neither more nor less, like those that Pablo Escobar, the drug lord in Colombia, did in the 80s. It amuses me, and I don't see myself or think I can run away in the style of a narco movie.
But, as time goes on, I have the feeling that I am committing a crime by doing journalism. Because in Nicaragua journalists are persecuted more than drug traffickers.
El Salvador: Doing journalism (and living) under constant persecution
By Julia Gavarrete (El Faro): "The wear and tear is getting stronger and it is a bet to shut us up"
I dreamed that I was raped. This is the second time I have written it. From that early morning in August 2020, I remember waking up in tears and with a deep tightness in my chest. I also remember the silhouettes, the struggles on my bed and screaming. It was all very confusing: I felt unable to divide the reality of the dream. That early morning was the first time I wrote about this. In the middle of a panic attack, I took an old notebook and wrote it down. I did it because I was trying to convince myself that none of this had happened.
On July 2, 2020, a few weeks before that dream, they broke into my house while I was at a press conference that the Ministry of Health gave at the Presidential House. We were locked down, in full quarantine for covid-19. When I returned, just a couple of hours later, I found my room in a dump. They entered, but the only thing of value they took was my laptop. I submitted a notice to the Prosecutor's Office to investigate, but it never advanced nor has it advanced until today. That robbery triggered a series of recurring dreams. I felt I had to protect my space even more, protect myself, but also everyone I love. I dreamed again and again that they were breaking into my house; But just as I tried to figure out who it was, I woke up.
I have never believed that the robbery was circumstantial, much less that it was pure chance. Years later, in January 2022, we published in El Faro a piece that revealed that we had been the target of an obsessive espionage with Pegasus, the software of Israeli origin that is only sold to governments. A scan that Citizen Lab and Access Now conducted on our devices determined that 22 members of the newspaper were being infected with the program. We learned the exact dates on which those attacks occurred. At that moment, I reaffirmed what I have always believed: nothing is circumstantial. The day my computer was stolen, my colleague Carlos Martínez was defamed by a page that is part of the ecosystem of media controlled by the ruling party, from where the government of Nayib Bukele makes propaganda, launches attacks against independent journalism and defames journalists with impunity. That day also began the audits of the Ministry of Finance against El Faro, with which the president has tried to accuse the media of money laundering. Because of this harassment, El Faro moved its administrative and legal structure to Costa Rica due to the lack of conditions to continue operating in El Salvador. The media has said it in an editorial: "We are leaving to stay." It is a decision that seeks to protect the journalism we do.
There are many other means that resist these attacks, attacks and threats; Journalists who with their work are leaving evidence of abuses of power and authority, even when that authority has all the power to intimidate us with a single tweet, by withholding our identification documents or using the same laws. Despite that, we continue.
Independent journalism in El Salvador faces a clear declaration of war. President Bukele, his government officials, like his henchmen, intensify the attacks and threats when journalism does its job, that of supervising and controlling the decisions of those who govern us. The records of the Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES) speak for themselves: there are more and more attacks against journalists.
The government strongly defends that there is freedom of the press in El Salvador "because no journalist has died." Why, then, does he not investigate who spied on us with Pegasus? This is a program that was also found on the phones of journalists from other parts of the world at the time they were killed. The government's apathy has led some members of El Faro to sue NSO Group in a court in the United States. We simply want to know who is behind this espionage.
We know that in the country we will never find answers because the only ones that come out of the government are accompanied by reforms, such as those that legalize espionage and seek to speed up the interception of communications. But there are many others that add to the legal framework established to censor us, persecute us, accuse us and arrest us. The Legislative Assembly, controlled by Bukele's party, approved a Gag Law to jail for up to 15 years media outlets or journalists who reproduce gang messages that generate "anxiety." The government insists that no journalist has been jailed, but it has the cards to do so whenever it wants.
They say that in El Salvador freedom of the press is respected, but the spaces gained since the signing of the Peace Accords are censored. It is useless to fall into the absurdity of defending that freedom of expression and of the press is measured by whether or not there are murdered journalists when we see how they silence the voice of citizens for fear of being victims of a public lynching on social networks or going to jail in a country where there is no longer independence of powers and that applies the Regime of Exception against all those who are considered a criminal without guarantees of defense.
But there will always be those who, despite everything, will speak out and denounce. This allows us to continue to resist the intimidating attacks, aggressions and espionage to which we are exposed. I know this has high costs, physical and mental health, hours in psychotherapy and doctor visits. And that is a feeling that we share among colleagues: the wear and tear is getting stronger and it is one of the bets to silence us.
A few days ago I visited my doctor. I had some tests for some health problems that I have presented. Everything seems fine, but my body says otherwise. For something neither the lysine clonixinate, cyclobenzaprine or tizanidine that I have been prescribed for more than a year have an effect.
"There's a direct impact of living under constant persecution...," the doctor told me about what he believes is one of the reasons my brain stays on alert all the time.
Guatemala: Telling from exile a country that criminalizes judges and journalists
Juan Luis Font (ConCriterio): "I make my program every day with the decision not to give in to those who would prefer to silence me"
I went into exile on April 1, 2022. Then I refused to accept that it was a journey of no return. From France, my first stop, I was urged to return to Guatemala with my mother whose terminal cancer was advancing relentlessly. I am 56 years old. Thirty-three I have dedicated to the profession of journalism, as a reporter and media director.
In February 2021, the Special Prosecutor's Office against Impunity, under the management of Rafael Curruchiche, a prosecutor considered by the United States to be a corrupt and undemocratic actor, began an onslaught against former prosecutors, judges and magistrates who had pursued corruption. In October, thanks to an infidencia, I learned that an accusation was being prepared against me. Prosecutor Curruchiche had gone to jail to take the statement of a former Minister of Communications and Public Works, imprisoned after three years on the run, accused of different cases of corruption. The former minister claimed to have bribed me to obtain complacent covers. He has not offered a single note to support his false accusation. My colleagues presented, instead, publications that revealed the great corruption in public works, from overvaluation of contracts to supposedly dredged rivers that went out of hand despite the waste. Several of these journalistic investigations had been the starting point for trials and convictions in Guatemala.
Before the accusation, I offered my statement of assets and income, the report of my bank accounts and the reports of my credit cards. The Prosecutor's Office obtained my arraignment, later revoked. The Public Ministry mentioned me in at least four other cases as a suspect, but did not press charges against me. My case is not unique. Michelle Mendoza, Sonny Figueroa, Marvin del Cid, Carlos Choc, all independent journalists, have also suffered persecution.
Guatemala's justice system, currently co-opted, also holds José Rubén Zamora, the founder of the newspaper elPeriódico, which I directed for 17 years. Zamora has not had access to a fair trial. He has had to change his lawyer a dozen times. Four of his defence counsel and three of his witnesses have been brought to trial.
The last time I spoke to Zamora was in May 2022, when he was still free. He urged me not to return to Guatemala. Ignoring it, I smuggled into the country. I hid in my own house for three months; I would go out at night to my parents' apartment; I broadcast my radio show via Zoom pretending I was away. I used a signal coverer to hide the origin of my transmission. On July 27, when Zamora was captured, I left the country again. My mother died two weeks after my departure.
Since then, I live between the United States and Mexico without asking for asylum or refuge: I refuse to think about a long period without returning to Guatemala. I do my radio show every day, with the decision not to give in to those who would prefer to silence my voice. Ours is a program of discussion on the Guatemalan political reality, hard and confrontational, because one of my colleagues aligns his opinion with the actions of the power groups. My two fellow drivers, like me, have not been paid since last January. The pattern of Guatemala's large capital groups receded as the fight against impunity and corruption progressed. State advertising only reaches those who are docile with the government. I, meanwhile, accept to work in the consultancies that are put in front of me to cover my expenses and aspire to scholarships that give me some stability. I work on creating a media aimed at Central Americans in the United States.
In my country today there are two cases that threaten journalism and independent justice. The first is a retaliation for the actions carried out by the United Nations Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) between 2006 and 2019 and the prosecutor's office of that time. That raid imprisoned a president and a vice president and reached the owners of the largest capital groups in the country. It also coincided with an unprecedented judicial collection of unpaid taxes. There were businessmen who had to deliver from one day to the next 100 million dollars to the treasury in taxes hidden from the State.
In Guatemala, wealth is concentrated in very few hands. One in two children is chronically malnourished and the country lacks a public health or education system that offers hope to the poorest. Four million Guatemalans (of the 18 in total in the country) have decided, we have decided, to flee to the United States.
The political power, furious with the actions against corruption, expelled the CICIG, took control of the courts and institutions, forced the re-election of the attorney general who covers up his thefts: it has displaced the prosecutors who investigate mismanagement and has avoided delving into accusations as serious as that the current president financed part of his electoral campaign with public funds. That same power today manipulates the electoral process to place a new representative of its alliance in the Presidency this year.
The second cause is a concerted effort to prevent the progress of cases of serious human rights violations during the Guatemalan civil war (1960-1996). These involve senior military officials, some of them related to large capital groups.
The independent press, like the former prosecutors, judges and magistrates who have been forced to leave the country under penalty of imprisonment, are asked to contribute to these two processes of search for justice and democracy, abhorrent to those who have benefited from the system for decades. For me, it's just hard to see myself doing anything other than journalism. I would be ashamed to keep quiet about what I understand and what I see, as I am ashamed and hurt by my children's anger toward our country.
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- El Salvador