Razor-sharp words by Sergio Ramírez

Opening address to IAPA's 77 General Assembly



Sergio Ramírez

Mr. Jorge Canahuati, IAPA president

Mrs. Gabriela Cañas, president of the EFE news agency

Mr. Ricardo Trotti, IAPA Executive Director

Mr. Danilo Arbilla

First of all, I must thank you for the honor I feel in speaking to you at the opening ceremony of the 77th General Assembly of the Inter-American Press Association - an institution with such a long history of defending freedom of expression.

Since I am, first of all, a storyteller, let me begin by recalling one from long ago in Nicaragua. When the Somoza dictatorship was on its death throes - although he believed it would last forever, and those around him made him believe so, as always happens in dictatorships - he ordered the silencing of all independent media outlets because, like all dictators, he believed it was better to reign in silence than to let the voices that disturbed him be heard.

The year was 1978. La Prensa newspaper ceased to circulate after its presses were destroyed by the shelling of armored vehicles and the military assaults. Earlier, on January 10 of that year, its director, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, had been murdered by hired killers of the dictatorship while he was driving his car, alone, on a desolate street, among the ruins left by the earthquake that had destroyed Managua a few years before.

Radio newscasts, first subjected to censorship, were also closed. Then, journalists found a means to reach the people - to let them know what the Somoza dictatorship did not want them to know. The cruelty of the repression, the young people who were found dead every morning in areas near the capital, the nighttime assaults on homes, the prisoners, the disappearances, the "clean-up operations."

And that means was to broadcast the news inside churches. From the main altar, sometimes without lights and under candlelight, the broadcasters read the bulletins while the people crowded into the nave to listen. This journalism was then called the journalism of the catacombs.

In Nicaragua, history has a vicious mechanism that makes it repeat itself. It is a fatal anomaly that still hasn't been corrected. A dictatorship triggers a revolution to overthrow the dictator, and that revolution spawns a new dictator who in turn sets off a new cycle of oppression. Somoza begets Ortega, and the dictator, offended by the free word, closes and seizes the media outlets, jails journalists or forces them into exile. It is history biting its own tail.

Once again, the newspaper La Prensa has been forced to stop its presses, first for lack of paper - held up at customs - and then its facilities seized by the police. Its general manager, Juan Lorenzo Hollman, is in jail, without medical assistance, and at risk of losing his sight.

Cristiana Chamorro Barrios is jailed, as is Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Barrios - both journalists and directors of La Prensa - and the third of the brothers, Carlos Fernando Chamorro Barrios - director of the Confidencial newspaper - fled through clandestine paths to escape the arrest order. It was their murdered father who said that Nicaragua would become a republic again, and the joint struggle achieved it. Not a sultanate, but a republic.

Miguel Mora - journalist and founder of the 100% Noticias channel - is in prison for the second time, after the channel's facilities were seized by the police in 2018 - and illegally confiscated. Radio journalist Miguel Mendoza is also in prison.

All these journalists are among the nearly 150 political prisoners - including seven presidential candidates, political leaders, civic and human rights organizations leaders, peasant and student leaders, businessmen, bankers - held without trial, or subjected to rigged trials, without due process, without the right to a defense, without lawyers, without medical assistance, and under inhumane conditions. All of them accused of the same prefabricated serial crimes - ranging from money laundering to terrorism, to acts against national sovereignty.

My first plea to you is that we do not forget these prisoners. That we keep alive the fact that they are locked up in a sinister prison - inside the big prison that the Ortega dictatorship has turned Nicaragua into. Keep the awareness that their cause is a just one - and necessary in the defense of democracy.

Dozens of print, radio and television journalists, such as Carlos Fernando Chamorro, have had to flee across the borders. And so, once again we have a journalism of the catacombs, only this time not in the churches - with the news read under candlelight. This catacomb journalism is carried out via social networks. From the underground - inside Nicaragua - or from exile, journalists, aided by anonymous correspondents, people are informed via broadcasts on YouTube, Facebook Live, podcasts, blogspots.

Carlos Fernando Chamorro broadcasts from outside Nicaragua his television programs Esta Semana and Esta Noche. 100% Noticias continues to report. The daily La Prensa maintains its digital edition - run by its journalists inside and outside the country. And dozens of other sites are open, and their journalists investigate and denounce acts of repression, abuses, corruption - and give a voice to the families of political prisoners. They reveal what the dictatorship wants to keep hidden, and contradict the official discourse and the official news that the regime seeks to spread through its multiple radio and television channels.

As never before, the journalism of the catacombs owns the words that the dictatorship cannot take out of the mouths of those who - amidst the hardships of exile, or the risks of the underground - defend freedom of expression and the right to inform.

The dictatorship wants a country paralyzed by fear and silence, while it prepares an electoral farce that has no legitimacy whatsoever; but the free word broadcast through the networks, capable of reaching everyone with a cell phone, contradicts that design. Never before has the word had so much weight as now, and in the bleak scenario which Nicaragua lives in - its institutions perverted, the rule of law in ruins, the raging police persecution - it is the word that saves us. The free word that resounds from the catacombs. The word in resistance.

I know that Nicaragua is not the only case where repression begins with the police order to impose silence. That is what we are talking about when we speak of police states. Other countries suffer the same - just look at Venezuela or Cuba. But rebellion always begins with words, and words are the faithful companion in the struggle for democracy.

I speak to you not as a politician, since I stopped being one a long time ago, but as a writer committed to words - which are always razor-sharp. It is the razor-sharp word that dictatorships fear - from the left or the right. In both cases the methods of repression are the same, and the repressive discourse is the same; what changes is the ideological disguise, the rhetoric. But even in the rhetoric they are similar - because it is an outdated rhetoric to begin with.

I am a writer in exile, with my books banned inside Nicaragua, and persecuted under the same arbitrarily fabricated crimes that keep so many fighters for democracy jailed - both women and men. And my contribution to the struggle for democracy in Nicaragua - and in Latin America - will continue to be words.

When a regime that tries to remain in power indefinitely - at whatever cost, censors - not only journalists, and persecutes - not only those who inform, but also a novelist; and orders the seizure of his books at customs - just as it ordered the seizure of the paper used to print the newspaper La Prensa - it is because that regime is, in the end, afraid.

Today in Latin America the struggle is set between dictatorship and democracy. Regimes that intend to stay in power forever - and therefore seek to override the will of the people by falsifying elections, silencing the media, and subjecting all the powers of the state under one fist, annulling their independence - are an anomaly of history in the twenty-first century.

To compromise on their tricks, to accept legitimizing them, to take as normal the abnormality they represent, to forget about them, to accept the results of their mock elections, to believe in their false openings and in their deceitful negotiations, through which they only seek to prop themselves up - is to become their accomplices.

To confront the abnormality - to contradict that parallel reality they seek to force upon us - there exists the free word and there exists the free media. The word that doesn't compromise, that doesn't yield, that doesn't give in. That is why it has been given to us, both to those who investigate the concealed through their work as journalists, and publish it - whatever the risks, and to those of us who seek to create different worlds through literary creation, not forgetting that novels are based on reality, and are but a reflection of that reality, tinged by the abnormality created by vicious power - which always rises up against the freedom and dignity of human beings.

The words are the same in both cases - the ones used by the journalist and the ones used by the novelist. But, in the end, they will be feared by tyrannies as long as they are razor-sharp words.

Thank you very much