Verónica Chávez, Miguel Mora, and Lucia Pineda, after Mora and Pineda's release from prison June 11, in Managua, Nicaragua. (CPJ)
Verónica Chávez, Miguel Mora, and Lucia Pineda, after Mora and Pineda's release from prison June 11, in Managua, Nicaragua. (CPJ)

Locked in ‘small graves’: Nicaraguan journalists Mora and Pineda describe their ordeal

Miguel Mora and Lucía Pineda were arrested on December 21, 2018, in the Managua newsroom of 100% Noticias and spent 172 days in prison facing charges of “inciting violence and hate” and “promoting terrorism.” The two journalists spoke to CPJ after their June 11 release. They will receive CPJ’s 2019 International Press Freedom Award in November.

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Even before they were arrested, Miguel Mora and Lucía Pineda heard rumors for days that the police wanted to dismantle digital and cable news channel 100% Noticias, one of Nicaragua’s most prominent independent media outlets.

Since April 2018, when protests erupted in Nicaragua in response to proposed pension reforms, 100% Noticias journalists received continuous threats on social media because of their work, and they often observed uniformed police officers or the same, unidentified men outside their office, according to Pineda.

On the night of December 21, 2018, Mora, the channel’s director and founder, had just finished presenting the news of the day and was closing up the office with his wife Verónica Chávez, also a journalist, and colleague Lucía Pineda, 100% Noticias’ news director.

Police special forces entered the 100% Noticias offices, disrupting everything in their path and taking the three journalists into custody.

“They entered with brutality, they knew that we were working and came in as if we were in a fortress with guns, they took us out of there as if we were criminals as if we were some sort of drug lords,” Mora recalls.

Chávez was released hours later, while Mora and Pineda were taken to the prison known as El Chipote, a center that international organizations including Human Rights Watch have described as a torture site.

“It was psychological torture to be there, I spent two weeks defecating in my hand. They took my glasses off, my eyes hurt horribly, and they did not help me. They questioned me more than 30 times, they questioned our work, and they wanted to force me to apologize to President [Daniel] Ortega,” Pineda told CPJ on the day of her release.

Both journalists were freed on June 11 after spending 172 days in maximum security prisons, isolated from other inmates, in unhealthy conditions, and without access to sunlight or recreational areas.

“We were locked in cells of total isolation, like small graves. There were very narrow windows. I did not talk to anyone. We were basically buried alive,” recalls Mora.

Even though Pineda also holds Costa Rican citizenship, Nicaraguan authorities denied Costa Rican representatives in the country access to Pineda while she was in prison, according to the journalist.

“I had a guard 24 hours a day. They were making sure that no one would go through my cell and talk to me,” Pineda added.

Both journalists were charged with “inciting violence and hate” and “promoting terrorism.” The start date of their trial was postponed five times, and they had no access to their lawyers during their time in jail. When they were finally released, it was under a controversial amnesty law that has been harshly criticized by organizations including the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights because it seeks to grant impunity for crimes perpetrated by police and government forces.

Mora and Pineda were among more than 800 political prisoners who were imprisoned during the anti-government protests–most of whom were ultimately freed under the amnesty law, according to news reports.

On the day of their release, Mora and Pineda were picked up at dawn by guards who did not give them any information, they told CPJ. They were not aware that they were going to be released and reluctantly left their cells, joining other political prisoners who were set to be freed. It was the first time in months they were able to speak with other people, aside from their guards or the occasional family visits they were granted.

“It’s the first time we’ve seen a cell phone in months. Although we live through horrible things, we came out strengthened, without any kind of fear. We believed that we were innocent and that we were going to be freed,” said Mora.

The protests that began on April 18, 2018, in response to proposed reforms quickly turned into a broader referendum on years of instability and the authoritarian leanings of President Ortega, as Carlos Fernando Chamorro–director of leading independent news website Confidencial–told the BBC in an interview marking a year since the protests. The repression left a deadly toll, with at least 326 killed and thousands of Nicaraguans injured over the course of the protests, according to the IACHR.

Independent journalists covering the demonstrations often became targets. On April 21, 2018, journalist Angel Gahona was killed while covering the aftermath of protests in the city of Bluefields on Facebook Live. Journalists across the country faced threats, harassment, and equipment theft, while authorities regularly censored radio and television outlets, as CPJ reported.

In December, the violence against media quickly escalated, bringing the danger out of the streets and into the newsrooms themselves. Police raided and occupied the offices of Confidencial. Just a week later, Mora and Pineda were arrested, and the 100% Noticias newsroom was expropriated as well. Chamorro was forced to flee the country in January.

Now that they are out of jail, Mora and Pineda are calling for the government to allow them to return to the 100% Noticias office, so they can continue with their work.

“The government has to give 100% Noticias back because it does not belong to them. It’s like if someone arrives at your house and they take it away from you. If they do not return it, it will show that Daniel Ortega is a thief,” said Mora.

At least 60 journalists have been forced into exile, according to the Independent Journalist Association, a Managua-based group of Nicaraguan journalists formed in response to last year’s repression. Many of Mora and Pineda’s colleagues from 100% Noticias left the country due to the persecution. Still, both journalists plan to continue working from Nicaragua.

“I’m going to Costa Rica for a while to visit my family, but we want to reopen 100% Noticias, and we demand that the government respects our right to inform,” said Pineda.

The day they were freed, Mora and Pineda received dozens of visits from relatives, friends, and fellow journalists. The joyous response to their release, along with the liberation of other jailed political leaders, became a national event, with celebrations in multiple cities.

While reflecting on their new role, Mora and Pineda made it clear that their commitment to press freedom has only grown stronger.

“We have become, without wanting it, the banner of journalism in Nicaragua and an example of what journalism is in crucial times,” said Mora. “We are happy to receive the 2019 International Press Freedom Award on behalf of all the journalists who, for a long time, have risked their lives for the simple act of going out to report in the streets of Nicaragua,” he concluded.