By Javier Garza Ramos

The joke in the newsroom of Barricada in the Nicaragua of the early nineties was that when the publisher, Carlos Chamorro, got a phone call from the president, the message could take one of two forms.

“I have a message for Mr. Chamorro,” President Violeta Barrios would say when she was upset about an article in the left-leaning newspaper.

Or it could be: “Tell my son I expect him for dinner tomorrow.”

For Carlos Fernando Chamorro Barrios, independence as a journalist is above everything, even when his mother was the president of Nicaragua. It has led to an extraordinary career in the news media, but also to a painful exile for him and his family, the Chamorro clan – an indispensable part of history in modern Nicaragua and in Latin American journalism.

Indeed, the Chamorro family now claims two Golden Pen of Freedom awards from WAN-IFRA: Carlos this year and his brother, Pedro, in 1982.

Listen to an exclusive episode of The Backstory Media Freedom Podcast with Carlos Chamorro.

Carlos Chamorro’s journey took him from political activism with the leftist Sandinista movement in the 1980s, to recognizing the need for independent journalism once Nicaragua transitioned to democracy in the 1990s. In this century, it has landed him in the crosshairs of an authoritarian government of the sort he and his family fought against four decades ago.

“Chamorro is one of the most important journalists of our era in Latin America. Without a doubt the most important in Nicaragua, where he became a brave defender of press freedom and independent journalism,” says Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas.

Joel Simon, who watched Chamorro’s work over the years as director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, describes him simply as “an extraordinary journalist.”

In the family

Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal was publisher and editor of La Prensa, the only independent news outlet during the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. But his son Carlos Fernando, born in 1956, did not initially follow him into the family business, choosing instead to fight the Somoza regime from the political trenches as part of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN). When Chamorro Cardenal was killed in 1978, Carlos had a turning point and chose to go into journalism.

“It changed my life. I never saw myself as a journalist,” Chamorro told me in an interview for The Backstory podcast.

After the Sandinistas ousted Somoza and came to power in 1979, Chamorro took over the FSLN’s newspaper, Barricada, which became the voice of the Sandinistas during the ensuing bloody civil war against the Contras.

The war ended in 1990, when President Daniel Ortega agreed to stand in a free election – eventually losing to Carlos’s mother, Violeta Barrios. She had distanced herself from the Sandinista movement originally supported by her husband, and in which her son still participated.

Carlos Fernando remained as head of Barricada and, with his family active across the different sides of Nicaragua’s political divide, his  job led to deep personal consequences. The Chamorros still owned La Prensa, which became more conservative, and the competition between the two newspapers was so fierce they even had nicknames for each other. In the nineties, Barricada called La Prensa ‘LaPrenCIA’, while La Prensa called Barricada ‘BarriKGB’.

Over time, Chamorro realized that being truly independent also meant Barricada would have to call to account its own party, so the newspaper began publishing critical stories about the FSLN leadership, still headed by Daniel Ortega.

“I was conscious that the only way in which the newspaper could survive was by gaining credibility and the only way [to do that] was by establishing standards of professional journalism,” Chamorro says.

The Sandinista leadership did not like that and took over Barricada, firing Chamorro in 1994. That simple action had profound consequences, as it unleashed a journalistic force. In the following years, Chamorro would launch some of the most successful news outlets in Nicaragua: the TV magazine Esta Semana in 1995, the investigative publication Confidencial in 1996, and the daily TV news show Esta Noche in 2005.

An assault on democracy

At the turn of the century, Chamorro had become a model of what journalism in Latin America aspired to after civil war or authoritarian regimes had given way to democratic institutions from México to Chile.

“Carlos Fernando was always the journalist most admired by my colleagues and I,” says Carlos Salinas, a Nicaraguan journalist now working for the Spanish daily, El País. “Everyone wanted to work with him.”

Salinas got his wish, rising to be top editor of Confidencial at a time when press freedom in Nicaragua would decline quickly. In 2007, Daniel Ortega returned as president of Nicaragua. Unlike 1979, when Ortega toppled a dictator in a civil war, this time he used democratic elections to seize power and dismantle the institutions created to place checks and balances on the government. One of those was the independent media.

“From his first steps, it was quite clear that [Ortega] was going towards an authoritarian direction,” Chamorro said.

According to Carlos Salinas, “from the start of his government in 2007, Ortega had Carlos Fernando in his sights.”

During the first decade, the assault on institutions was not brutal or blunt, rather gradual and subtle. According to Chamorro, “There was some kind of tolerance, even for the independent and critical press. We were subject to harassment, but we were reporting, investigating corruption.”

However, Chamorro was stripped of some of his news outlets. As TV channels were taken up by cronies of Ortega, including his sons, Chamorro lost his popular news programs. Confidencial revealed the use of public funds to shore up political support for Ortega and to enrich his family.

When protests against the government erupted in 2018, in good measure thanks to revelations of corruption and abuse of power by Chamorro’s staff, Ortega reacted with fury, and Confidencial became a target. The police raided its offices and newsroom in December of that year, along with the offices of non-governmental organizations dedicated to human rights.

Chamorro left the country in early 2019 but returned later that year. He was not the only member of the Chamorro family standing up to Ortega. His brother, Pedro Joaquín, was a leader in the opposition and his sister, Cristiana, was running as a presidential candidate in the election of November 2021. In June of that year, both were arrested.

That prompted Chamorro to leave Nicaragua for good, just as he was accused of money laundering and Ortega’s regime was preparing to throw him in jail. He settled in Costa Rica, from where he still runs Confidencial, working with a staff that is scattered in several countries. The website is supported by donations and grants, still producing investigative journalism. He has not given up.

‘More journalism’

“Against the brutality of Ortega’s regime, Carlos Fernando has always responded with more journalism,” says Rosental Alves, who serves with Chamorro on the board of the Fundación Gabo, started by Gabriel García Márquez to promote a new kind of journalism in Latin America. “He was harassed, his newsroom was raided, his computers stolen, and he answered with more journalism. He was thrown out of television, and he went to YouTube.”

“I know this has taken a toll on Carlos and everyone involved, and I’m always impressed that he stays in the struggle every day,” says Joel Simon, now running a journalist protection program at the City University of New York.

“If democracy survives in Nicaragua by some miracle, it will be due to the work that Carlos Chamorro is doing.”


See the Golden Pen of Freedom award announcement.

Listen to an exclusive episode of The Backstory Media Freedom Podcast with Carlos Chamorro.



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