When Nicaraguan police raided the offices of an independent media outlet last week, they struck dangerously close to the heart of the country’s democratic roots.
It wasn’t just the closing down of ‘Confidencial', an online newspaper and two TV news shows, it was also about their founder, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a fearlessly independent, award-winning journalist and son of one of the nation’s most revered heroes.
His father, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, was a crusading newspaper editor who was gunned down by an unknown assassin in 1978, triggering street riots amid charges that his killing was ordered by the country’s hated dictator Anastasio Somoza.
Within 18 months Somoza was toppled in a revolution led by the left-wing rebels of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN). In a curious twist of history, the Sandinista leader in 1979, Daniel Ortega. today stands accused of ordering the attack on Chamorro’s son.
“A wave came over me when I saw Carlos Fernando confronting the police. “Is he going to end up like his father?” said Jennie Lincoln, director of the Latin America and Caribbean Program at the Atlanta-based Carter Center, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
“It wouldn’t take much. Ortega has gone so off the charts,” she added.
For the last eight months, a wave of popular street protests has rocked the Ortega government. Sparked by a botched tax and social security reform, the protests have been met by ferocious government repression, with more than 300 dead, reminiscent of the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship in the 1970s.
With the death toll in the hundreds, many of Nicaragua political opposition leaders are either in jail or have fled into exile.
Meanwhile, the country has slid into a Venezuela-style police state, with opponents of the government now legally defined as “terrorists,” though the media has remained largely free to criticize the government – until last week that is.
“The assault and takeover of the independent news organizations run by Carlos Fernando Chamorro are nothing less than a final frontier for freedom of the press in Nicaragua,” according to Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer with the New Yorker who has covered Nicaragua for decades and sits on the board of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Foundation for Journalism.
“It is chilling to see Carlos Fernando being persecuted by the man who … overthrew Somoza, Daniel Ortega, and had presented himself ever since as Nicaragua’s savior.
In many ways, the story of the Chamorro family is the story of modern day Nicaragua, serving as one of the principal voices for democracy for more than half a century.
Carlos Fernando Chamorro’s mother, ‘Dona Violeta’ Chamorro, was a much-revered president of Nicaragua in the 1990s, who helped lead the country’s political transition back to democracy after decades of civil war.
She was the fifth member of the conservative oligarch Chamorro family to serve as president, going back to the 1850s - and the first woman to be elected president in the Americas.
“The Chamorro family is a legacy family,” said Lincoln. “The Chamorros are always there fighting against authoritarianism and repression.”
Carlos Fernando Chamorro, now 62, is the youngest of four brothers and sisters. Barely 20 when his father died, he had not planned to be a journalist. “I admired my father, and he was the most important person in my life, but I didn’t want to live in his shadow,” he told The New York Times.
After graduating from high school, he left Nicaragua to study economics at McGill University in Canada. When he returned to Nicaragua in 1977, he idealistically joined the Sandinista guerrillas to fight for the poor.
When his father was assassinated in 1978, however, he was thrust into journalism, joining the family newspaper, La Prensa.
A family divided
When the victorious Sandinistas marched into Managua 18 months later it ended up dividing the Chamorro family. Two of Doña Violeta’s children - Carlos Fernando and Claudia - stuck with the Sandinistas, while two others – Pedro Joaquin and Cristiana - went into opposition.
Pedro Joaquín, would later leave Nicaragua and join the Contra army, financed by the Reagan administration to defeat the spread of communism in Central America, while Cristiana stayed on at la Prensa. Carlos Fernando became editor of the Sandinista newspaper, Barricada and Claudia became the Sandinista ambassador to Costa Rica.
As editor of Barricada, essentially a leftwing propaganda machine for the Sandinistas, Chamorro says he was fulfilling a duty in wartime to defend his country. Those who knew him at the time recall him as being part of a more open-minded faction in the party, sometimes at odds with Ortega. “At the beginning of the revolution it was a very broad tent,” said Cynthia Arnson, a former foreign policy aide in the House of Representatives in the 1980s who often visited Managua.
“I have always seen Carlos Fernando first and foremost as a journalist inspired by the strong example of his father, even in his Barricada days,” said Arnson, who is now director of the Latin American program at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C..
Chamorro’s return to critical journalism involved another dramatic family event. In 1990, as part of a peace deal to end the war, Ortega agreed to elections. Chamorro’s mother, Dona Violeta, ran against him despite having no political experience. She won in a stunning upset.
Carlos Fernando and Claudia didn’t vote for her, preferring Ortega instead.
Even so, the Chamorro family stayed close. Dona Violeta would host the children, with their spouses, at Sunday dinner. “It was always very cordial, but there was no politics at the dinner table,” said Claudia’s husband, Edmundo Jarquin, a politician and former presidential candidate.
“She transferred that motherly instinct to Nicaragua when she was president,” he added noting that her government led an important process of national reconciliation.
The children also shared a beach house on the Pacific coast.
Carlos Fernando remained at Barricada until the party eventually split in the mid-1990s and he was forced out by pro-Ortega hardliners along with several other more independent-minded editors such as feminist writer Sofia Montenegro.
That would be a major turning point for Chamorro who gradually stepped into his father’s shoes, adopting the same crusading style to denounce corruption and authoritarian rule. That would soon put him at odds with Ortega - and his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is also Nicaragua’s Vice President.
After leaving Barricada he began Confidencial, and a TV show ‘Esta Semana’ (This Week) as well as founding CINCO, a media studies center. In 1997, he received a journalism fellowship to study at Stanford University, Berkeley, followed by a year teaching and taking classes at the University of California, Berkeley, which he credits with deepening his appreciation of professional standards in journalism.
In recent years he added a daily evening TV show, Esta Noche (Tonight), and has broken numerous stories of government corruption, including the diversion of state funds from Albanisa, a now defunct Venezuelan oil program into Ortega’s private foundation, earning him and his journalists numerous awards, including the Maria Moors Cabot Prize organized by the Journalism School at New York’s Columbia University. (His father received the same prize in 1977, six months before he was killed.)
"Carlos Fernando is totally committed to the country and to quality journalism," said Wilfredo Miranda Aburto, 27, one of Confidencial's 12 staff reporters and who also contributes to Univision. "We are very fortunate journalists. Carlos Fernando is such a rigorous journalist and a great teacher. He is always on top of the news, with the best sources and he never seems to rest," added Mirando Aburto, who has worked at Confidencial for seven years and described often getting emails from his boss late at night and then the next day, first thing in the morning.
Despite the gradual erosion of political liberties Nicaragua’s independent media had remained largely intact, with a few exceptions such as Radio Dario which was burned down by Sandinista activists in the city of Leon in April.
Pro-Ortega lawmakers last week stripped nine non-governmental organizations of their legal status, including the country’s main human rights group, accusing them of involvement in terrorist acts.
The attack on Esta Semana and Confidencial marks a change, said Eric Olson, a veteran Latin America expert at the Seattle International Foundation. “Up to last Thursday most of what has been done has been directed at the opposition and the protesters. This now goes directly against the voices of civil society that are the last remaining institutional counter-weights to the government. It’s a very bad sign.”
“Yes, I have fear”
On Monday Chamorro accompanied his lawyer to the courthouse in Managua to appeal against the police raid on his offices. Asked by journalists if he was afraid, as he waited outside the court complex with his wife and no bodyguards. “Obviously, we’re scared of being crushed by a regime that gets its way by using force and terror,” he said.
Borrowing a line from his father, he added: “Yes, I have fear, but each person owns their own fear. We all as citizens have to learn to administer fear and overcome it … to demonstrate that ideas can’t be killed, and nor can ideas be killed by killing journalists.”
He told reporters on Monday that Confidencial is being "reorganized" and continues to operate from an undisclosed location. “The newsroom exists in the soul and the brain and the convictions of each journalist, so the physical place right now isn't so important," he added.