Thinking about his exile and the worry that has inevitably become part of his career as a journalist, Octavio Enriquez describes a fear he shares with his wife and children.
“Our family has a shared fear that we will never live in our house again, our place. That fear never goes away. You think: ‘Oh, I will never see my house again. I will never see the gardenias we planted. We will never see the lemon tree again,” says Octavio, a Nicaraguan journalist who formerly worked for Confidencial and went into exile in 2021.
Octavio did not want to leave behind his house, the lemon tree, or the gardenias. Nor did he want to leave his family, routines, and the country he knows so well. He was forced to do so because of his profession: he’s a journalist from a country that has seen a dramatic deterioration in press freedom and increased attacks on the press since 2018.
Under the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index plummeted from 90th to 158th place in just five years. Journalists were silenced for reporting on the violent and systematic repression of anti-government protests in 2018, and the socio-political crisis that engulfed the country in the years that followed.
This ranking reflects the imprisonment of journalists, threats of violence or death, and the government seizure of some of the country's biggest news outlets, like Confidencial, 100% Noticias, and the newspaper La Prensa.
At least 185 Nicaraguan journalists have been forced into exile, according to Voces del Sur, a network of organizations that advocate for press freedom in South America. “A journalist fleeing from a conflict or war zone because of the overall conflict or war has to flee as well, but not due to their journalism,” explains Louisa Esther, a doctoral researcher investigating the trend of exile journalism.
Exile represents a personal loss for the journalists who see their lives change drastically, while it also negatively impacts the country they are forced to leave behind. With the departure of journalists, freedom of expression is lost, leaving a shortage of diverse sources of information.
In light of this climate, three Nicaraguan journalists who fled to Costa Rica spoke to Confidencial and shared the challenges they face and what motivates them to continue reporting. They had to reinvent themselves in exile and overcome a variety of obstacles as well as the impossibility of returning home.
Obstacles of reporting from afar
Exiled journalists have to start from the ground up in a new country where the cost of living is often higher, which is coupled with the challenge of moving an entire team to a new place and establishing a support system to accommodate journalists who have recently fled. In many cases, journalists flee with their families, driving up their expenses.
Once settled, the most glaring obstacle for many exiled news media organizations is generating revenue and ensuring the sustainability of their news platform. When it comes to producing quality journalism, exiled journalists usually do not have the same access to resources and equipment that they did back home.
In the case of Confidencial, the editorial offices in Managua were assaulted and occupied by police without a court order, and the broadcasting equipment was confiscated. La Prensa faced a government embargo on its paper and ink material, ultimately preventing the newspaper from being printed. La Prensa’s facilities were then confiscated by police in August 2022, leading many of its journalists into exile.
“We face precariousness in relation to working conditions, in terms of not having the optimal conditions to produce. We only have the basics. That means more effort, more work overload, and more commitment,” explains Elmer Rivas, a journalist at Confidencial who went into exile in 2021. He is also the general producer of Esta Semana and the political satire segment Fuera de Broma.
The interviewed journalists agree that one of the immediate challenges is telling the story of a country when they are unable to be there physically.
“You lose contact with your natural environment. The journalist is made to walk the streets, explore the place, talk to people, see and listen, and understand. If you are not there it becomes much more difficult, so your processes to corroborate information become longer and more tiring,” explains Isabel, a journalist who spoke to Confidencial under an assumed name to avoid reprisals.
Exiled journalists often have to rely on sources to be their eyes and ears in their home country, but many people have grown afraid to talk to the press. Elmer describes that the lack of access to sources is one of the biggest challenges. “In Nicaragua, there is a state of terror and people don't want to talk, they are too afraid,” he says.
Other journalists agree. “People are afraid to talk and the political component always creeps in,” says Isabel. This fear extends to the journalists themselves. Like Isabel, who requested anonymity, Nicaraguan journalists inside and outside of the country have opted to stop signing their articles out of fear.
The combination of distance and fear makes corroborating information and cultivating reliable sources even more essential. In Nicaragua's authoritarian climate, it’s also crucial to ensure the safety and anonymity of the source.
“Some of these sources are public officials, and we have a duty to protect them. They’re like a guide in the dark,” describes Octavio, who attributes the trust received by journalists at Confidencial to the credibility that the media has accumulated over the years.
The decision to leave
The final push toward exile is different for each journalist, but the months leading up to the 2021 elections saw the departure of many Nicaraguan reporters. To ensure another term in power, the Ortega-Murillo regime launched a massive raid and imprisonment of dozens of opponents, including all presidential aspirants who intended to participate in the electoral process.
A report titled Nicaragua: No Freedom of Expression by the Chapultepec Index, details that between May and June 2021, the Nicaraguan Attorney General's Office in coordination with judicial authorities summoned 23 journalists and some other opponents for questioning about the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation and other civil society organizations. The result was the arrest of some journalists while others fled into exile shortly after.
“If you look at newspapers, you will notice two things: articles without bylines, and articles without sources. That reveals the fear that has been going on since then,” says Octavio, referring to the widespread self-censorship that peaked during the electoral context.
The repression extended to politicians, business leaders, journalists, and the citizenry in general. At that point, Octavio could feel that the danger was getting too close. “Two plain clothes policemen came looking for me at my house. At that moment I felt that I was the risk factor for my family, and I understood that it was inevitable that we would become an exiled family,” he says.
It was also during the 2021 electoral context that Elmer was forced to choose exile for a second time. He first left Nicaragua to protect his safety in late 2018 after the confiscation of the Confidencial newsroom but returned after 11 months to continue practicing journalism.
“We believed that returning was a way of trying to fight and to rescue the rights that had been violated, which have to do with the right to inform and with the right that we have to do journalism and to exercise our profession in Nicaragua,” he says.
During that short comeback, the Confidencial team was able to cover the severe mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic in Nicaragua, but the goal to continue working inside the country became impossible after a year and a half.
“We were not a focus of repression, but when the electoral context hit, Confidencial became a target. And it was against Confidencial that they started the onslaught and the radicalization of the repression on May 20, 2021,” he explains.
For Isabel, the decision to leave was influenced by the issue of constant threats to the media, the economic problems, and the knowledge that there was no promising future for her in Nicaragua. As a mother, her priority was also to keep her kids safe. “I’m going to keep working because it is what I like and want to do, but this cannot put my family at risk,” she explains.
“They [exiled journalists] try everything they can to stay, up until the point that it's personally just not possible anymore,” describes Esther, who has worked closely with exile media and journalists around the globe.
A concerning trend worldwide
The forced exile of journalists is a phenomenon that has been present worldwide for decades but has only started garnering more attention from scholars, the media, and organizations recently.
In June 2023, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published what they describe as the first map outlining the migratory flows of exiled journalists.
Although it’s a step in the right direction toward documenting the phenomenon, this field of research is relatively new, and Esther and other colleagues in the field warn that the map is not entirely representative. On his X (formerly Twitter) account, professor and researcher Richard Stuppard warns that the migratory flows of journalists from Zimbabwe and South Sudan are missing from the map, for instance.
Esther’s research on the topic has put her in touch with media professionals from nearly a dozen countries, including Burundi, Venezuela, Belarus, and more. She believes that much of the newfound interest in exile journalism can be attributed to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which pushed anti-war journalists to flee Putin’s regime.
“That was the overall dominating topic for months and still is. And that is when the journalists from Russia started going into exile, and rightfully got a lot of support. And I think this was a big turning point,” she says.
Esther points out that journalists from other countries in the same situation do not receive the same amount of support, noting that journalists from Burundi have been going into exile since 2015, while Eritrean journalists started fleeing the country as early as 2001.
Among the countries Esther has studied, Nicaragua stands out for the way in which the Ortega-Murillo government has imposed exile on citizens who oppose the government, stripping 316 citizens of their nationality.
“We had not seen up until now that states actually still do that,” she says, describing the banishment of Nicaraguan citizens as an old-school understanding of exile that is reminiscent of the Middle Ages.
Although there are currently no global numbers of how many journalists are actually in exile, Esther argues that exile journalism is an increasing trend that goes along with “accompanying trends such as the decrease of press freedom.”
Struggles that built resilience
Even before exile became the new reality for independent journalism under the Ortega-Murillo regime, there were obstacles that forced journalists to seek new ways of informing the population.
The type of access to information that traditional journalism relies on became scarce after Ortega came back to power in 2007, with little information provided by ministers, governmental institutions, or the president himself.
“In the case of Nicaragua, I believe that the decomposition of the whole social environment, of democracy, of access to information, was a progressive decomposition. So in a certain way, this allows you to adapt and develop skills and tools to search for information,” says Isabel, who started her journalistic career in 2007.
“We do not have the option to interview public officials, and that is another great challenge,” echoes Octavio. With this blockade of information, Isabel and Octavio learned to look for other paths to provide balanced accounts of the events that unfolded in the country.
Isabel describes that when government officials refused to be interviewed, she would review government documents ranging from the official government gazette to the Ministry of Health’s public procurement yearbook. Octavio routinely checks official government media, raking through to find valuable information in the middle of propaganda.
“I feel that journalism has been recounting each of the stages [since Ortega came back to power]. By recounting facts, we are against oblivion, because nobody is more interested in people not knowing or not recounting than the rulers themselves because that allows them to commit their abuses again,” says Octavio.
Journalism is also what helps many of these professionals cope with exile. “I don't stop because I believe in what I'm doing and I believe that it pays off. It contributes to the truth. It helps people to be informed, it helps to cultivate and encourage critical thinking,” says Elmer.
“Writing is like my lifeline. I anchor myself to the reality of reporting,” Octavio says.
Although it has been difficult to accept the reality of exile and this drastic onslaught against their work, these journalists remain steadfast in their commitment to reporting.
“Gloria, my wife, kept the suitcase packed for a while and didn't dare to unpack because she said that at any moment we could be going back to Nicaragua. Now, time has shown that it’s not going to be so simple, so easy. But, we’re here,” says Octavio.