Dictators can steal the pen, not the journalism

Odoobo C. Bichachi

What you need to know:

Not all is lost though and the big takeway is that while dictatorship may steal our tools of trade, it muast not steal our journalism.

On March 6, Nicaraguan veteran journalist Carlos F. Chamorro delivered the annual Reuters Memorial Lecture titled, “How to report under a dictatorship: lessons from Nicaragua and beyond”.

It was an electrifying lecture and its highlights are very familiar with the journalists’ situation in many states of Africa; Uganda not excluded. Chamorro is an award-winning editor of the news site Confidencial and host of several popular TV shows – lately on YouTube because the regime in his country has exiled him along with hundreds of other journalists, civil rights activists and professionals that disagree with the government. You can read the full lecture at https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk. The politics aside, he said many things that have a universal resonance on journalism. I therefore wish to highlight a few of those classic bites for the benefit of many of us in the journalism trade and for the many that consume our journalism. How much do you see yourself, or our country/region in these sound bites?

An act of faith: “Doing journalism under a dictatorship - to continue reporting and telling the truth - is an act of resistance. My own newsroom at Confidencial has been seized twice. First, our offices were raided by the police, without any warrant, at midnight on December 13, 2018, and then continued to be permanently occupied by armed guards.”

Bypassing the dictatorship: “Our television programs Esta Semana (This Week) and Esta Noche (Tonight) have been banned from broadcast and cable television, but we continue to reach an audience of more than 415,000 subscribers through Confidencial’s YouTube channel and Facebook.”

Double-edged sword of social media: “Social media represents an extraordinary vehicle for overcoming censorship, but it has also become a space for disinformation and political polarisation that competes against the independent press.”

 Last bulwark of journalism: “…But ultimately, our only protection lies in doing more and better journalism to strengthen the credibility of the media and our relationship with our audiences. Only quality journalism can determine the effectiveness of the press against the machinery of disinformation and propaganda…”

Fact-checking and fake news: “Fact-checking initiatives are necessary but not sufficient means to overcome misinformation. In addition, it’s necessary to recover the credibility and trust in a useful press, capable of reconnecting with its audiences, and even of taking advantage of the reach of social media to promote quality journalism.”

First draft of truth: None of these journalistic investigations produced any change in the public policies of Daniel Ortega’s authoritarian regime, which is not designed to be held accountable. However, many of these stories and these data are valuable inputs for the report on human rights violations in Nicaragua…Together with the families of the victims of the repression, journalists have documented the first draft of truth and memory to lay the foundations of justice as one of the pillars for the restitution of democracy in Nicaragua.

Good journalism wins: “The main challenge for the press in the face of the deterioration of democracy will always be to monitor power and do good journalism, even in the midst of the worst conditions of political polarisation.”         Journalists are not judges: “…in the face of the temptation that journalists sometimes suffer to supplant the role of political parties and other institutions in crisis, we have to remember every day that journalists are not judges, detectives, police or auditors. Our mission is also not to stray into activism but to preserve our autonomy to monitor public and private powers and the new forces that advocate change.”                          Last reservoir of freedom:“Nicaragua’s experience shows that the resistance of the press in exile under a dictatorship is not enough to clear the way for democratic change, but as long as it continues to do more and better journalism, it will keep the flame of the freedom of the press burning as the last reservoir of all freedoms.”


It is clear from these excerpts on Chamorro’s talk that journalism is under siege in many parts of the world and the methods and means of repression are the same, and so are its tormentors. Not all is lost though and the big takeway is that while dictatorship may steal our tools of trade, it must not steal our journalism. Quality journalism is the ultimate defence against dictatorships.

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