Forty-one years ago this week, the leading opposition journalist in Nicaragua was assassinated. Today, with that Central American nation under a new dictatorship, his son has assumed his role. Their two-generation story is woven into Nicaraguan life, and is almost unique in the history of journalism. It also chillingly exemplifies the dangers that have always faced journalists in countries whose leaders fear the press and seek to crush it.
Pedro Joaquín Chamorro was the most outspoken dissident in Nicaraguan history. He relentlessly attacked the Somoza family regime, which ruled the country for four decades beginning in the 1930s. The regime returned his animosity. During one of his periods of imprisonment, he was caged with a wildcat in a complex adjacent to the Somoza family compound.
As a young freelancer in the mid-1970s, I visited Nicaragua and interviewed Chamorro. Sitting behind his desk at the newspaper he edited, he told me the Somoza regime was “a classic dictatorship, characterized by corruption, violence, disorder, and government-sponsored crime.” He and his compatriots, he said, had “minimum and basic goals: an end to the feudal dynasty and establishing a democratic republic in Nicaragua.”
Chamorro’s assassination in 1978 threw the country into upheaval. Widespread outrage helped set off an uprising, led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front, that toppled the Somoza government 18 months later. Chamorro’s son, Carlos Fernando, became editor of the official Sandinista newspaper. Then, in 1990, the Sandinistas were voted out of power and replaced by President Violeta Chamorro, widow of the martyred editor.
That placed her son in a difficult position. He criticized his mother’s government in print, but ultimately fell afoul of his Sandinista patrons. In 1994, he was fired for refusing to follow the party line. He founded a newsletter called Confidencial and began hosting television programs. Since then he has faithfully criticized whatever government is in power. After the Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega returned to the presidency in 2007, his commentaries became steadily sharper.
Until last year, Carlos Fernando Chamorro faced no more challenges than those facing many journalists in countries with thuggish governments. That changed dramatically in April. Nicaraguans, at the end of their patience with Ortega’s repressive family regime, erupted in peaceful protest. Ortega responded with fierce repression. More than 300 protesters have been killed by police or para-military squads. The number of political prisoners, which during the Somoza period never reached 100, is now over 500. Every day the crisis deepens.
Ortega has worked systematically to emasculate the Nicaraguan press. He has ordered some news outlets shut. His relatives or supporters have bought several television stations to assure that their news coverage will serve the regime. Journalists have been intimidated into fleeing the country. Last month, in the dead of night, police raided the Confidencial office, ransacked it, and then seized it. The newsletter, though, is still appearing online. Its reporters work independently, in semi-clandestine conditions. Carlos Fernando Chamorro still appears on one of the few remaining independent television channels and broadcasts commentaries on YouTube. Unable to escape the memory of his father’s fate, he lives under 24-hour guard.
“Today’s situation is just as bad as the one my father faced, or even worse,” he told me by telephone from Managua. “Both dictatorships censored the press and closed newspapers, but now we have journalists being sentenced to prison terms as terrorists for the crime of practicing journalism. The other big difference is that Somoza imposed his repression in the 1970s because he faced an armed insurrection. Today the uprising is strictly civic and peaceful, but the repression is even more brutal.”
Conditions in Nicaragua are not likely to improve soon. President Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have shown no desire to compromise or pull masked raiders off the streets. Nor have they reached the limits of what they could do to crush the press. Carlos Fernando Chamorro represents a threat to the Ortega family not unlike the threat that his father posed to the Somozas — or that slain columnist Jamal Khashoggi posed to the family regime in Saudi Arabia.
Today the legacy of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro is embodied in one of his favorite sayings: “Without freedom of the press, there is no freedom.” Another of his famous lines came in response to a question about whether he feared the Somoza regime’s power: “Everyone is master of his own fear.” That line now haunts his son’s memory.
“My father’s moral example is of course an inspiration for me,” Carlos Fernando Chamorro reflected. “I feel that, along with other journalists in Nicaragua, I am doing my duty. I confront my fear with serenity. My fundamental commitment is to journalism. I know that has political consequences, but it’s what I have to do.”
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.