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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Nicaragua could bet on a 'journalism of the digital catacombs' in light of current crisis: Sergio Ramírez



While a young Daniel Ortega was fighting the regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in Nicaragua in the late 1970s, media outlets were targeted by censorship laws and journalists had to work in secret. From church pulpits, reporters informed the public about what was happening in the country.

Sergio Ramírez. Photo: Knight Center.

Decades later and with Ortega as president of a government that is jailing journalists and forcing others into exile, writer and former vice president Sergio Ramírez suggests that reporters might bet on a “journalism of the catacombs” once more, only this time, it will be digital.

Ramírez proposed the idea of a “journalism of the digital catacombs” during a conversation with students and others that was organized by the Knight Center at the University of Texas at Austin on Jan. 31.

The author, who won the 2017 Miguel de Cervantes Prize for his literary work, remembered how journalism of the catacombs was born in 1978 in the face of adversity. “During the days of the revolution, when Somoza was repressing the press very hard in Nicaragua, all the radio programs, that were the most important means of communication, were suppressed by Somoza,” Ramírez said.

According to El Nuevo Diario, the catacombs of the churches were originally the places where journalists and guerrillas of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) would hide when the National Guard appeared on the streets.

In 1977, Ramírez led a group in opposition to the Somoza dictatorship called “Los Doce” (The Twleve), comprised of intellectuals, businessmen, priests and civil leaders in support of the FSLN, which had Ortega as one of its leaders, as published in the writer’s biography. He also joined the Junta of National Reconstruction after the fall of the dictatorship. Shortly thereafter he was part of Ortega's first government, as his vice president, in 1984.

Now, according to the writer, upon being forced into exile by Ortega's repression and censorship, many journalists are reporting on their country from San José, Costa Rica and Miami, Florida. Both cities are becoming, according to Ramírez, the new centers for Nicaraguan journalism.

This type of journalism would rely heavily on citizen journalism, the people of Nicaragua and social networks, Ramírez said. “We are going to have reporters on the ground in the country sending it (the news) to Costa Rica where they're going to be broadcast. That is the way, I think, things are going to function.”

In March 2018, the Nicaraguan Telecommunications Chamber (Canitel) reported that there were 2.9 million smartphones out of a total 8.3 million working cellphones in the country, according to El Nuevo Diario. Additionally, social networks are the primary motivation for accessing the internet, with 80 percent of users employing the service for that reason, Canitel said. Of all the social networks, Facebook is the most popular with 2.7 million active accounts in the country, the newspaper added.

According to Ramírez, the use of smart cell phones and social networks will be a great tool to report on the situation in Nicaragua, since many media have been closed or are on the brink of losing their printing supplies, and the only ones that are functioning at full capacity are those owned by the presidential family and relatives.

Ramírez said that the morale of his compatriots is strengthened by the integrity and "high morale" shown by many of the political prisoners and journalists who are now imprisoned by the regime.

He referred in particular to Miguel Mora and Lucía Pineda of 100% Noticias, who have been in prison since Dec. 21, when the police raided their offices without a court order.

There is “pure retaliation” from the government against Mora and Pineda “because they were sympathetic for many years to the Sandinista Front, and now they rebelled against the power” to inform about what is happening with this government, Ramírez said.

Ramírez also pointed to the violence that has marked the country since the start of social protests, first against a proposed social security reform, and then as a general condemnation of the current government.

Nicaragua was until recently one of the least violent countries in the region, as Ramírez pointed out. The head of the Nicaraguan police asserted in September 2017 that Managua was "the Latin American capital with the lowest homicide rate: 5 per 100,000 inhabitants"; the second in the continent after the Canadian capital, according to EFE.

Regarding these precedents, Ramírez said that the situation now is very different after the protests began in April 2018. "There are about 600 deaths in the last 6 months" in Nicaragua, Ramírez said.

Before “the National Police was very respected in the country,” Ramírez said, however, the paramilitary groups that operate as the government’s shock force to suppress social protests “are incorporated to the regular police forces by now,” he said. The former vice president revealed that these groups are receiving military training, arms and uniforms. The police have become “personal police of the Ortega family and personal police of the Sandinista party,” he said.

For Ramírez, the best scenario for Nicaragua to return to being a democratic state is for Ortega to open to dialogue with the opposition and accept having free elections with international supervision.

"With the intermediation of the church, or some confident intermediator, with the assistance of some countries in the world to warranty the results of this dialogue. This is the only way, if not, there could be a civil war,” the former vice president said.

“I think we are going to get it, through international pressure and through the will of the people from Nicaragua, to find a solution through peaceful means,” he concluded.



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