On a hot tropical morning last November, Carlos Fernando Chamorro peered out the airplane window and looked down on the familiar landscape of Nicaragua’s lakes and volcanoes. It had been nearly 11 months since the veteran news director had fled into exile in neighboring Costa Rica, along with eight reporters from his news organization, Confidencial. Now, all but one were returning to Nicaragua to face Daniel Ortega’s enduring dictatorship and “to reclaim the right to practice journalism in Nicaragua.”
It’s a daunting challenge. During Chamorro’s year in exile, Nicaragua went full-blown police state. Confidencial’s offices, which were raided by Ortega’s Sandinista security forces in December 2018, remain occupied along with all the newsroom computers and broadcast equipment. The Sandinistas’ surveillance, harassment, and physical assault of journalists have become standard occupational hazards for reporters. State-backed paramilitaries handle the dirtier work of targeting journalists’ family members and spray-painting homes with death threats.
Across the hemisphere, Latin American journalists are being pinched from all sides
“Nobody is safe under a military dictatorship that arms and uses its own paramilitaries,” says Lucía Pineda Ubau, news director of 100% Noticias, Nicaragua’s first 24-hour cable news channel. Pineda speaks from experience. The veteran journalist was jailed for nearly six months last year along with the channel’s owner, Miguel Mora, after the Sandinista police raided their TV station and charged them with “conspiring to commit acts of terrorism,” simply for their ongoing reporting on the anti-government protests. Pineda and Mora jointly won the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2019 International Press Freedom Award.
Nicaragua didn’t invent exile journalism, but it has mainstreamed it over the past year. Since the country popped off in civic rebellion against the Ortega dictatorship in April 2018, more than 80 journalists have been forced to flee the country. (Disclosure: I was among the first journalists pushed out of Nicaragua, in April 2018. While I was reporting on the uprising for Univision, the Sandinistas accused me of being a CIA agent and coup-plotter. The U.S. Embassy received intelligence that my life was in danger and told me I should leave Nicaragua ASAP.)
“In Nicaragua all civic protest is criminalized, and so too is all journalism covering these protests,” says Chamorro, whose father, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the legendary publisher of Nicaraguan daily La Prensa, was gunned down in the streets of Managua in 1978 for his opposition to the Somoza dictatorship.
Nicaragua is an extreme case, even by Latin American standards. But the challenges facing journalists there are not unique in this troubled region. Across the hemisphere, the combination of weak democracies, authoritarian creep, struggling economies, government retaliation against advertisers, and worsening levels of political and social violence are pinching journalists from all sides.
Journalists also face the growing existential threat of social media. For some, social media is viewed as a savior — the great equalizer in an industry controlled by wealthy elites. But for many professional journalists, social media is a monster that’s threatening their livelihoods and credibility. The Trumpian battle cry of “fake news” has become so prevalent that Latin America has adopted the term in English, as if it were an unwelcomed foreign phenomenon foisted upon them.
The challenges to a free press are producing a unique blend of solutions and journalistic workarounds in different countries — everything from exile journalism about Nicaragua and English-language outreach in El Salvador to a new fake news observatory in Bolivia and paywalls in Chile. A look at the immediate and long-term challenges facing four countries in Latin America — and the solutions and recalibrations journalists are making to keep the industry alive:
When President Nayib Bukele announced his candidacy on Facebook Live on October 2, 2018, it sent a clear message to the national press corps: This digital native wasn’t going to have a politics-as-usual relationship with the news media.
Since becoming Latin America’s first millennial president last June, Bukele has taken what can be described as an “OK Boomer” approach to governing by Twitter. He uses his account to sidestep the press, mock the old political guard for being out of touch, appoint and remove cabinet members, take selfies during his U.N. General Assembly address, and declare himself “the coolest president in the world.” Bukele is also not afraid to weaponize his 1.2 million Twitter followers against his critics, including the press.
His supporters love it. And there are a lot of them. Bukele’s approval rating has consistently danced around 90%. That level of popularity has only emboldened him. In recent months, Bukele has limited press conferences and locked out journalists who ask tough questions. Critics worry Bukele’s behavior is having a corrosive effect on El Salvador’s institutional democracy and the media’s ability to hold the government accountable.
Covering Bukele’s presidency often means chasing tweets, says Ezequiel Barrera, editor of digital newspaper Gato Encerrado. “We go to the places where [Bukele] has promised something and we interview people on the ground and look for documentation to find out if what he said is real or not,” he says.
Keeping up with the president’s itchy Twitter finger means being “faster” than print or TV, oftentimes publishing “instantaneously” while staying “constantly informed” about what’s happening on social media, says Julio Villarán, editor at La Página, one of the country’s more established digital news publications. Digital-native reporting also means turning to digital-native sources, rather than relying solely on the traditional rolodex of politicos and pundits. In some ways that’s having a democratizing effect on news-gathering efforts, Villarán says. For example, on January 16 residents in several neighborhoods of San Salvador complained on social media that the water coming out of their taps had a strange odor and tasted horrible. When the national water and sewage authority, ANDA, told the press that there was no problem with water quality, dozens of residents started uploading pictures of brown water coming out of their faucets, prompting a quick government reversal and the announcement of a plan to improve the drinking water quality in the capital. “We used to rely on politicians and people in the public eye [for comment],” Villarán says, “but now the citizens also have a voice.”
The challenge is to open the conversation responsibly, without giving a soapbox to the lunatic fringe, trolls, or government shills. Villarán says most trolls don’t pass the basic sniff test: they have no profile photo, a new account, and mostly retweet other troll accounts. “We have to maintain our objectivity, because at the end of the day that’s what we sell — objectivity and the veracity of the information we publish,” Villarán says.
El Salvador is home to some of the most enduring and respected digital news outlets in the region. El Faro, founded in 1998, is Latin America’s first online newspaper and is considered a leader in online innovation. Unlike other digital media outlets that rush to publish at the blur of trending hashtags, El Faro tries to slow things down with deeply investigated features, such as its recently published interactive piece to commemorate the 1981 El Mozote massacre, in which an estimated 1,000 rural villagers — mostly women and children — were slaughtered in a scorched-earth military operation carried out by a U.S.-trained battalion of Salvadoran soldiers. The massacre, which was covered up for years, is still considered the worst in Latin America’s modern history.
For many years, El Faro’s bread and butter was its in-depth reporting on Central American gang violence. Covering the issue properly meant developing sources and implementing a comprehensive security plan for journalists — two things that require time and money, the traditional enemies of online journalism. “The only way to understand violence in the region is with time and resources,” says El Faro editor and journalist Óscar Martínez. “The only way to put together a security network and have informants inside the gangs is with time and resources.”
The problem is, nobody wants to pay for that. It’s not in the interest of the government or the private business sector to bankroll reporting that exposes the country as a violent and lawless gangland. El Faro’s solution was to create a specialized newsroom project called Sala Negra, then approach George Soros’ Open Society Foundations for funding. “It was a declaration of principles: it was us telling a group of photographers, journalists, and documentarians that they can focus on [gang violence] exclusively until they understand it and can explain it,” Martínez says.
El Faro has become a financial model for independent journalism in Central America
By making violence its own independently funded vertical, it allowed El Faro to dedicate other resources to building out other aspects of its news organization.
“Our goal is for El Faro to be self-sufficient. Is that possible today? No, it’s not,” Martínez says. “We’ve needed international cooperation to operate over the years. But editorially, we have no relationship with [international donors]. They have no say over what we publish.”
El Faro is currently 63% financed by international donors, but is working on diversifying its other revenue streams through digital advertising, book sales, providing content to other publications, asking for reader contributions, and organizing regional journalism workshops.
In some ways, El Faro has become a financial model for independent journalism in Central America. Its success has inspired the birth of two similar online publications in El Salvador — influential newsmagazine Revista Factum and Gato Encerrado, a publication funded by international foundations including Oxfam, Seattle International Foundation, and Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation.
Doing journalism in a small country with a small economy makes the paid subscription model impossible. Still, El Faro says it’s working towards building a “community of readers” who pledge donations, help distribute digital content, and act as “a first alert system” of constructive criticism “when we make errors.” Part of that community-building effort includes new outreach to international readers — including the nearly 3 million Salvadorans living abroad — with an English-language newsletter that launched in January.
Women journalists in El Salvador face additional challenges. According to a recently published report by El Salvador’s Human Rights’ Ombudsman, an appalling 100% of female journalists in El Salvador say they’ve experienced sexual harassment while reporting on the streets, and 96% say they’ve experienced sexual harrasment in the newsroom.
Women journalists are also targeted differently by online haters, according to independent radio journalist Josseline Roca. “We get attacked for our image and for our relationships,” Roca says. “Some of the threats we get from political fanatics backing this government say stuff like, ‘She should get raped.’ There’s a lot of misogyny.”
Women journalists are taking other proactive measures, for example, by organizing the first all-women’s collective of journalists, which hopes to establish a common agenda for female journalists and act as a lobby group to promote salary parity and the promotion of more women to leadership positions at news organizations. Women journalists are also urging El Salvador’s legislative assembly to pass a law to protect female reporters by requiring media companies to develop policies to address gender inequality, harassment, and sexism in the newsroom.
Veteran TV journalist Jennifer Ortiz decided it was time to leave Nicaragua after Sandinista paramilitaries sent her WhatsApp messages threatening to sexually abuse her children. Her house was under surveillance by men in pickup trucks, and she had been tailed while reporting on protests.
So in late June 2018, Ortiz and her husband, fellow journalist Erick Muñoz, packed up their three kids and headed south to Costa Rica. Shortly after finding a place to stay in San José, Ortiz revealed a little secret: she and Muñoz were the mysterious journalists behind the upstart media project Nicaragua Investiga (Nicaragua Investigates).
Ortiz and Muñoz had started the digital media site a month earlier as a form of “clandestine journalism” — an effort, she says, to continue reporting on Nicaragua’s crisis without taking all the heat of byline journalism. “We couldn’t stop reporting,” she says. “It’s what we know how to do.”
But anonymity nearly backfired. “At first people thought it was a fake news site because we didn’t say who was behind it. Only once we were in Costa Rica did we feel free enough to identify ourselves publicly.”
That’s when Nicaragua Investiga became an exile journalism project. A year-and-a-half later, Nicaragua Investiga has become a household name, with 130,000 followers on Facebook and nearly 100,000 subscribers on YouTube. The viral video content allows Ortiz to monetize the site and pay two freelance journalists who work in clandestine circumstances in Nicaragua.
YouTube has become a refuge for many of Nicaragua’s exiled journalists. Those who have developed a personal brand over the years are now leveraging that into an online subscription base, such as “Actualidid con Dino Andino,” hosted by a popular former TV journalist who started his own digital news program in exile with 13,500 subscribers.
Luis Galeano, who fled to Miami in December 2018 after the Sandinistas raided 100% Noticias, was able to take his TV news program, “Café con Voz,” and move it to social media rather seamlessly. Galeano had always maintained a social media presence, but when Facebook and YouTube became the only viable platforms for his show, his audience followed him over. His Facebook page jumped from 14,000 followers to 150,000; his Twitter followers went from 4,500 to 50,000; and his YouTube channel jumped from 3,400 subscribers to nearly 27,000, allowing him to earn some money. He says digital monetization is a fraction of what he was earning from TV ad revenue back in Nicaragua, but insists it’s “enough to pay the power bill, internet, and part of the rent.”
“I have a new respect for the power of social media,” says Galeano, acknowledging that having been on TV gives him a huge monetization advantage compared to print colleagues. “It’s where the civic protest in Nicaragua started, and today, thanks to the news vacuum on cable TV, social media has become the ideal instrument to reach the people. It’s a way of telling the Nicaraguan public that we haven’t surrendered. That we’re still here and putting up a fight from outside the country.”
Exiled journalist Uriel Velásquez, former reporter for the daily El Nuevo Diario, which folded earlier this year, fled to Spain in December 2018 after receiving death threats from Sandinista paramilitaries. In exile, Velásquez and four other Nicaraguan journalists living in Spain started a new digital media initiative called Despacho 505, named after Nicaragua’s country code. Like many exiled journalists, Velásquez works closely with local collaborators back in Nicaragua to verify everything on the ground. He also conducts interviews on video calls and WhatsApp. Velásquez’s Despacho 505 website has done some important investigative work from abroad, but even the best text websites don’t generate money like video does.
“We do journalism because it’s our passion and because we want to denounce the abuses of the regime and promote freedom of the press,” Velásquez says. “But we don’t have any financing or ads. Sustainability is one of our biggest weaknesses and challenges.”
Journalists back in Nicaragua are also wondering how long the situation can endure. Many are working for no or low pay, and facing a constant threat of attack, harassment, and theft. Street reporting has become a nimble game of cat-and-mouse with Sandinista forces. Police and paramilitaries, hidden under motorcycle helmets and cloaked in impunity, routinely steal reporters’ cameras or cellphones, or smash them on the street. The threat of arbitrary arrest followed by a kangaroo-court conviction always looms.
“Nobody is safe. Journalists and photographers have to protect themselves by working in groups, as a pool. If journalists go out alone to cover protests, they are putting themselves at much greater risk,” says Chamorro.
After nearly 14 years of socialist rule under President Evo Morales, Bolivia was rocked last October by a series of violent protests that forced Morales to resign and flee the country. For some it was a coup; for others it was a system correction after more than a decade of authoritarian slip. Those conflicting interpretations underscore just how deeply polarized Bolivia has become, and how difficult it is for journalists to report on the news in a country where each group has its own version of the truth.
For independent journalists, Morales’ ouster is a moment to put their hands on their knees and catch their breath after a decade of trench warfare. “Mission accomplished!” says veteran journalist Amalia Pando, who announced the end of her popular radio program, “Cabildeo,” on December 7, a month after Morales fled the country. “The goal was to prevent Evo Morales from staying in power eternally and for Bolivia to recover its constitutional order and press freedom.”
For independent journalists, Morales’ ouster is a moment to put their hands on their knees and catch their breath after a decade of trench warfare
In quieter moments, Pando acknowledges that the government’s long-sustained efforts to wrestle the independent media into submission had finally taken its toll. “My budget ran out completely,” she says. “I couldn’t resist a single month longer.” The fact that she managed to outlast Morales’ government by just a few weeks was a “marvelous coincidence,” Pando says with a tired laugh.
Over the past decade-plus, Morales used enormous sums of state funds — nearly $1 billion over his term — to bankroll propaganda, subsidize ideologically aligned media outlets, and run attack ads. At the same time he weaponized the tax authority, prosecutors’ office, and other state institutions to harass critical media and private businesses that advertised with them. The most irksome journalists were blacklisted by the government, making it hard for them to find work even after getting fired.
Now that Morales is on permanent vacation in Argentina, Bolivian journalists are trying to recalibrate. “We need to relearn how to be journalists in a normal functioning democracy,” says Raul Peñaranda, director of Brújula Digital. That means redefining what it means to be an independent journalist. “For years, being an ‘independent journalist’ meant being in opposition to Evo Morales,” Peñaranda says. “In a polarized country, everything is always defined in terms of whether you are for or against the government. In a polarized society, the media also ends up being polarized. Now that [Morales] is gone, journalists — including myself — need to move beyond that polarization and become journalists again, and not activists — a role we were pushed into by the previous government.”
For many journalists, the Morales years were ones of basic survival, not media innovation. Bolivia Verifica is a notable exception. Founded in June 2019 with funding from several European embassies, Bolivia Verifica is a non-profit “fake news observatory” — the first of its kind in a country that’s just starting to bridge the digital divide.
Bolivia Verifica was started, in part, as an effort to counter ex-President Morales’ “digital warriors,” groups of government-sanctioned cyber activists dedicated to weaponizing social media against government opponents. Morales created his battalions of online grunts shortly after losing a 2016 referendum to abolish presidential term limits. Morales later circumvented the plebiscite results by getting his judges to overturn the re-election ban in the constitutional court, but he never got over the sting of the referendum vote — a political defeat he blamed partially on social media.
“The objective of the Morales government was to spread its propaganda on social media using institutional government channels, while using these parallel political groups of digital warriors to attack opponents,” says César del Castillo, editor-in-chief of Bolivia Verifica. “This was a declaration of a fake news war in Bolivia.”
While Bolivia’s political future looks uncertain heading into 2020, journalists agree the country and the national media is on the cusp of “a moment of big change.” Says Peñaranda, “One of the biggest lessons journalists have learned from the Morales’ years is that we have to be independent. Always.”
The political upheaval ignited by a massive student protest in October of a subway fare hike acted as a catalyst for fake news, opening a virtual firehose of viral rumors, partial truths, and outright lies on social media. The student protest gave way to broader demonstrations against socioeconomic inequality and political corruption. “This is the first time Chile has experienced such a dramatic moment of political convulsion during the era of social media,” says Paula Molina of Radio Cooperativa. “We’ve never seen anything like that before in terms of volume and intensity.”
Fake news is nothing new to Chile, but Molina says it’s harder for journalists to ignore its influence in moments of upheaval when rumors can trigger violence. That means journalists need to be everywhere at once, verifying everything. And when it comes to shoe-leather reporting, the bigger newsrooms have a clear advantage over smaller, independent digital media startups. Radio Cooperativa, Molina says, “has a big team of reporters to dispatch out into the streets. And that was our strength; we were able to go out and see what was happening with our own eyes.”
While big newsrooms may have fared better in reporting on the protests, their moment of vindication could be shortlived. Over the past few years, traditional media — both public and private, print and TV — has suffered serious layoffs due to an advertising revenue crunch. According to the Reuters Institute’s 2019 Digital News Report, the financial problems have forced some TV media outlets, such as Canal 13, to outsource its camera operators and long-form news production to third-party production companies, while forcing print media — including award-winning print magazines Paula and Qué Pasa — to go exclusively online.
As the internet gets increasingly crowded with blogs and news websites, some media companies are looking to distinguish themselves, such as LaBot, the country’s first news chatbot. “We looked at Chile’s digital landscape and realized that journalists and media companies weren’t doing anything that used new technologies to reach the public,” says Francisca Skoknic, who created LaBot in 2017 with Molina and fellow journalist Andrea Insunza. “Our objective was to find new ways to reach audience.”
They did so by creating a chatbot that takes a more conversational, DM approach to delivering the news on Facebook Messenger and Telegram, using a digital-native languge that includes emojis, short texts, and GIFs. LaBot, which requires users to sign up for free, enjoyed a spike in popularity during the 2017 presidential elections, when it registered more than 10,000 subscribers. It hopes to build on that success this year, ahead of Chile’s April 26 national referendum on a new constitution, followed by a possible constitutional convention in October.
Other digital news sites are trying to find their niche in a slumping digital landscape where nine of the top 10 Chilean websites are losing audience, according to a 2017 study by Puro Periodismo. “There is a lot of noise online so we want to help people listen to what really matters,” says Andrés Almeida, editor of Interferencia, Chile’s first paywall-native news site. “So we’re not in the game of publishing first or constantly; we publish once a day and we pick our battles in terms of coverage.”
That means going deep on a handful of important stories. For example, Almeida says, Interferenica has been doing some investigative reporting on historically underreported land-conflict issues involving Mapuche indigenous communities and, in the process, “discovered that the sub-secretary of the interior owns a house in Mapuche territory, which is illegal.” Another Interferencia investigation found that the president’s son was tied to a tech company that received a multi-million dollar government contract.
Almeida says the key to Interferencia’s editorial independence is its paid subscription base, which allows the newpaper to publish at a slower rhythm and investigate conflicts of interest that other publications wouldn’t touch for fear of upsetting government or private business advertisers. “We don’t have any advertising, so we’re not subject to the dictatorship of clicks,” Almeida says.
While several other Chilean news sites have experimented with paywalls on certain sections of the newspaper, Interferencia was the first born behind a metered paywall, which allows three articles for free, plus two more with email sign-up before requiring readers to purchase a subscription for unlimited access. Almeida claims the plan is working. But with over 1 million visitors a month and only 1,000 total subscribers after one year, Interferencia is still trying to figure out how to improve that conversion rate. Currently, the site’s overhead is subsidized by the owners’ own investment, but Interferencia hopes to reach subscriber-based sustainability by year four.
While big newsrooms may have fared better in reporting on the protests in Chile, their moment of vindication could be shortlived
Not everyone in Chile thinks paywalls are the answer. CIPER, the country’s oldest and most revered investigative news site, flashes a massive yellow banner on its homepage announcing, “We don’t believe in paywalls or exclusive content. We believe in access to quality information for everyone.”
CIPER, which stands for the Center for Journalistic Investigation, was founded as a non-profit organization in 2007, and currently supports its website with a combination of institutional funding from the likes of The Open Society and reader donations. Mónica González, who founded CIPER and served as its director for more than a decade, says it’s “still too early to know” if their reader-supported model is working, but insists “We can’t restrict public access to our articles” behind a paywall, “especially in moments of crisis. It’s an ethical issue.”
She says CIPER is part of a shrinking brand of serious journalism in a country that is increasingly “drunk on infotainment” and a well-financed “fake news industry” that is bankrolled by a corrupt elite and supplied by “bad journalists with high salaries. Good journalism is being suffocated by the same people who want to suffocate democracy. People don’t understand that good journalism is at risk. And they don’t understand that without good journalism, they are going to end up deaf and blind and vulnerable to the corrupt class.”
Tim Rogers is a senior correspondent and producer for Univision’s “Real America with Jorge Ramos” on Facebook Watch.