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In Nicaragua, night is falling for the free press

Editorial Board | Washington Post

August 19, 2021 at 5:00 p.m. EDT

Police at the offices of La Prensa in Managua, Nicaragua, on Aug. 13. (Jorge Torres/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

In Central America, the Managua-based daily La Prensa bills itself simply as “the newspaper of the Nicaraguans.” Yet this modest claim hardly captures the role La Prensa has played since its first issue rolled off the presses in 1926. During those 95 years of turbulent history, the paper — under the ownership of one of Latin America’s most distinguished journalistic families, the Chamorros — has consistently stood for democracy and press freedom. Its critical stance toward the repressive Somoza dynasty probably led to the assassination of La Prensa’s then-editor, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, in 1978. After the Sandinistas took over in a 1979 revolution, La Prensa opposed the excesses of that government, facing censorship and harassment as a result.

Today, however, La Prensa — like Nicaragua itself — faces some of the greatest challenges in its history. On Aug. 13, President Daniel Ortega sent his police into the paper’s offices, purportedly to investigate money laundering and other trumped-up charges, and arrested general manager Juan Hollman Chamorro. The raid took place a day after La Prensa had suspended its print edition, noting in an editorial that the government was denying it access to newsprint, which must be imported. Mr. Ortega had previously subjected the paper’s vice president, Cristiana Chamorro, to house arrest on similarly spurious charges, her real offense being to consider running against him in presidential elections set for Nov. 7. In a rambling speech before an audience of military officers last weekend, Mr. Ortega bizarrely maintained that his regime was merely prosecuting La Prensa’s “calumny against the state,” which, according to him, “is a crime in any part of the world,” the United States and Europe included.

On Monday, Mr. Ortega revoked the licenses of two U.S. democracy-promotion organizations, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, along with permits for Oxfam and organizations from Denmark, Spain and Sweden. La Prensa courageously continues to put out a Web edition, though for how much longer is highly uncertain. A kind of authoritarian zeal has gripped the minds of Mr. Ortega and his vice president, Rosario Murillo, 70. The latter is both his wife and de facto co-president — and widely believed to be pursuing dynastic power for her and her family after Mr. Ortega, 75, ultimately passes away. The key to that is to rig the Nov. 7 election. With the crippling of La Prensa, the Ortegas are close to completing the annihilation of all opposition they ignited in April 2018, when they met a wave of protests with repressive violence that ultimately cost at least 325 lives.

It is probably no coincidence that the regime raided La Prensa as the Biden administration had its hands full coping with the collapse of Afghanistan. Like dictators around the world, Mr. Ortega and Ms. Murillo depend on the acquiescence or distraction of governments and peoples beyond their borders. As a deep night of political repression descends on what was once a promising democracy — home to 6.5 million people, hundreds of thousands of whom have family in the United States — perhaps the most important thing people in this country can do is pay attention.

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