TODAY NICARAGUA (VOA) Anibal Toruno is defiant despite a decision by the Nicaraguan government to revoke the license of one of the country’s last independent radio stations.
After 73 years of reporting on this tiny Central American state, an order from Nicaraguan authorities on August 13 banished Radio Dario from the airwaves.
Toruno, the station’s director and owner, said Radio Dario has survived attacks from the former dictator Anastasio Somoza, who fled in 1979 after the left-wing Sandinista revolution, and more recently, harassment under the current President Daniel Ortega, including a deadly arson attack by pro-government supporters.
“Dictators always make the same mistake. By closing a radio, they think they stop the fight for a free press. While there still exists a computer, while there exists a telephone or any digital device which allows us to practice journalism, we will carry on doing so,” he told VOA in a telephone interview from Miami.
The journalist has been living in the U.S. for safety reasons since January 2020.
“It has been one dictator after another, but we will survive. It is the end of a chapter of traditional radio. But people can still listen to us via the website. Of course, the listeners will miss listening to us and we will miss them,” he said.
Named after the nation’s most famous poet Ruben Dario, the local station has about 15,000 daily listeners, said Toruno.
And while the affiliate of Voice of America has 17 staff, none are named in reports to protect their safety.
The station’s closure comes in the wake of the Ortega government shutting down seven Catholic Church radio stations linked to Bishop Rolando Alvarez, who was critical of the Nicaraguan president.
In an August 19 raid, authorities detained Alvarez along with several priests. Authorities accuse him of “organizing violent groups” and inciting them to “carry out acts of hate” — allegations the prelate denied.
The raid is an escalation of tensions between the church and a government which is increasingly intolerant of dissent.
Ortega’s government has raided and detained members of the independent media and last year arrested dozens of opposition leaders including seven potential candidates challenging him for the presidency. They were jailed in rapid trials closed to the public.
At least 17 media outlets — many of them small community stations — also had licenses revoked in Nicaragua in the past two months. More than 130 journalists have fled into exile, most heading to Costa Rica.
In July, La Prensa, the nation’s oldest independent newspaper which has been printing for 95 years, announced all its remaining staff had fled the country, citing “persecution” under Ortega’s government.
Authorities in March sentenced the paper’s publisher to nine years in jail on money laundering charges. Media rights groups believe the charges are retaliatory.
Abigail Hernandez, of media freedom group the Independent Journalists and Communicators of Nicaragua (PCIN), said the closing of Radio Dario was a “death announced.”
“Since 2018, at least 35 media — either community radios or local papers — have been shut down. It is part of a strategy to silence the opposition,” she told VOA by telephone from exile in Costa Rica.
The Nicaraguan Embassy in Madrid did not respond to requests for comment from VOA.
Both La Prensa and Radio Dario have said they will keep working. But others in exile say continuing to report can be difficult.
Exiled reporters depend on sources prepared to put themselves at considerable risk to speak to journalists forced into exile, Cindy Regidor, a journalist with Confidencial, told VOA from Costa Rica.
The investigative online news weekly she works for puts out television reports via YouTube.
Costa Rica offers protection to the exiled media community, but it is not without challenges, she said.
“For some it is very difficult because their media may have been closed down and Costa Rica is a very expensive country compared with Nicaragua,” she said.
Regidor said of about 200,000 people seeking asylum in Costa Rica, 90% are Nicaraguans.
For Toruno, who has worked for 40 years for Radio Dario in Nicaragua’s second city of Leon, this is his third time in exile.
In 2018, a pro-government mob set the station’s offices on fire. About a dozen journalists escaped but the building was destroyed, a security guard was hospitalized with burns and two arsonists died.
Radio Dario moved to temporary offices and set up two emergency escape routes in case of further attack. One was a trap door to a neighboring house and a ladder leading to the roof.
It was part of a wave of violence against Nicaragua’s independent media as it covered a three-month uprising against the Sandinista government. One journalist was shot dead while reporting live on Facebook. Other journalists have told VOA they were beaten or their homes attacked.
By contrast, the latest attack on Radio Dario is more peaceful.
“They tried to say that the station was not registered at the right address. This was a technique to close us, and a trick,” Toruno said.
A copy of the letter from the Nicaraguan telecommunications agency revoking the license alleged that the station’s headquarters, 90 kilometers from the capital Managua, did “not correspond to those authorized by the license.”
“This is nonsense. It was all political. It is an attack on free speech,” said Toruno, who posted the letter on social media.
The loss of this station adds to the dwindling list of credible news organizations.
Hernandez of PCIN said Canal 12 and Canal 10 are the last two independent television channels remaining. She said no newspaper exists in the country to report events without state interference.
“People can get access to YouTube or the internet to find independent news but it costs $1 for a few hours. The connection is not good in many parts of the country,” she said.
“For much of Nicaragua, the radio is still the traditional way to find out what is going on and that has been silenced.”
Hernandez said the Nicaraguan government is attacking the constitutional rights of many independent journalists to make their lives impossible.
“It is denying us the right to education, to health services or to having our passports renewed. In some cases, children have been separated from their parents because they have had to go into exile,” she said.
Despite this, she remained unbowed.
“We are trying to defend the right to keep this type of journalism alive,” said Hernandez.
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