Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, Nicaragua

World Press Freedom Hero (Honoured in 2000)

Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, crusading publisher and editor of the independent daily La Prensa and the leader of an opposition alliance campaigning for the removal of President Anastasio Somoza Debayle, was gunned down on his way to work in Managua on Jan. 10, 1978. His murder provoked violent demonstrations and demands for Somoza’s resignation, touching off a civil war in Nicaragua and marking the beginning of the end of the authoritarian Somoza family regime.

Born in Granada, Nicaragua, on Sept. 23, 1924, Chamorro had long been a chief opponent of the Somoza dynasty. While still a law student, he began taking part in demonstrations against the dictator General Anastasio Somoza García and was briefly jailed in 1944 after making an anti-Somoza speech at a rally. That same year, his family’s newspaper, La Prensa, was shut down by the regime, and the Chamorro family fled to Mexico, where he began studying journalism. He returned to Nicaragua in 1948, becoming editor of La Prensa after his father’s death in 1952.

Concerned about the plight of his country, where Somoza had crushed all political opposition and amassed a considerable personal fortune, Chamorro remained involved in politics. In 1954, he was jailed, tortured and sentenced to imprisonment on charges of rebellion, but the sentence was commuted to house arrest in 1955.

Chamorro was arrested again in 1956 during a bloody government clampdown following Somoza’s assassination. He was accused of complicity in the assassination but later charged with rebellion and banished to San Carlos, a distant town in northern Nicaragua, in 1957.

He fled to Costa Rica with his wife Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, and organized an expedition in 1959 to overthrow the government of Somoza’s elder son, Luis Somoza Debayle. However, the expedition’s members were captured and Chamorro brought for a third time before a military court, which sentenced him to nine years in prison for treason. Upon his release in 1969, he resumed the editorship of La Prensa, which continued attacking the Somoza regime, now headed by Anastasio Somoza Debayle, younger son of the former dictator. Violeta Chamorro was elected president of Nicaragua in 1990.

During a 32-month suspension of constitutional rights, imposed by the government in 1975 after an attack by Cuban-backed rebels, Chamorro headed the opposition Democratic Union of Liberation (UDEL) and campaigned for human rights and the restoration of democracy. His paper became the main opposition platform, bringing the corruption of the Somoza regime into the spotlight of world opinion. During this period, Chamorro and La Prensa were repeatedly censored. The regular procedure was that on the afternoon prior to the day of its publication, all but the first and last pages of the paper had to be submitted for review by a board of censorship composed of three officers of the National Guard. The first and the last pages were submitted on the day of publication.

As if foreseeing his untimely death, Chamorro wrote a letter in 1975 to President Somoza: “I am waiting, with a clear conscience, and a soul at peace, for the blow you are to deliver.” Three years later, in January 1978, Chamorro was killed by unknown gunmen who pulled up beside him in a car and opened fire with machine guns. “His blood has spattered all over Nicaragua,” an editorial in La Prensa mourned. At his funeral, thousands of people followed the coffin from Managua’s Oriental Hospital to the Chamorro family home, taking turns carrying it.

Following Chamorro’s murder, an estimated 30,000 people rioted in the streets of Managua. Cars were set on fire and several buildings belonging to the Somoza family were attacked. A general strike was called. Outside the capital, unrest flared in a number of cities and towns, particularly in areas where National Guardsmen had massacred peasant farmers during the 2.5 year counterinsurgency effort. The government responded with further violence and reintroduced martial law censorship. During 1978, there were seven machine gun attacks and attempted bombings of La Prensa, now under the management of Chamorro’s widow, Violeta.

Speaking about her husband to the participants of the 1998 IPI World Congress in Moscow, Violeta said: “During his whole life, Pedro Joaquín was a tireless fighter for democracy in Nicaragua and against the dictatorship of Somoza. This cost him incarceration, torture, exile and finally death. He was warned many times that plans existed to assassinate him, yet no threat detained him from fulfilling his mission to impart the truth and preach democracy.”