Nicaragua Dispatch — the backstory

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 6.43.59 PMAs a teenager, Miami-based journalist Tim Rogers left the comforts of suburban Massachusetts with his father in exchange for a battered Nicaragua freshly emerged from years of war.

“It was the most foreign thing I could have imagined – from Wellesley, Massachusetts to this war-torn ruinous city, Managua,” he said. “It was fascinating to me.”

After that 1992 trip, by way of Mexico and Costa Rica, Rogers found his way back to the country that so enraptured him at 16.

Although he now calls Miami home, Rogers, 39, still keeps “a wistful eye on Nicaragua,” the country where he launched and struggled to sustain two English-language publications. Where he freelanced for major international outlets. Where he fell in love.

It was also the country where Rogers believes he was followed. Where he realized, at one point, that his phone was tapped. Where he learned – from the drunken ramblings of her cousin – that Nicaraguan first lady and spokeswoman Rosario Murillo detests him.

As an independent journalist in a country increasingly hostile to non-governmental media, Rogers realized that covering the country’s news and politics was necessarily dangerous territory. No amount of fair reporting could save him from the suspicious eye of the Ortega administration. He realized that, with the growing abundance of government – or official – media, “‘independent’ is sort of synonymous with ‘opposition’ now.”

But Rogers also learned that as a gringo journalist in Nicaragua, he was operating under a different set of rules – ones that protected him in ways that cannot protect ordinary nicaragüenses.

Rogers studied politics and Spanish at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. He studied abroad in Spain at the Universidad de Salamanca in 1996 before graduating in 1998.

His goals for post-grad weren’t well defined, but Rogers knew he wanted to return to Latin America. Immediately following graduation, he volunteered for a non-profit in Mexico called the Cuernavaca Center for Intercultural Dialogue on Development.

Soon, the student loan bills kicked in and Rogers knew he couldn’t continue working for free.

“I wanted to stay in Latin America, but what do I do in Latin America?” he said. “I’m not good enough to play professional soccer. The options were pretty limited.”

While in Mexico, Rogers met a Canadian freelance journalist named Jim Hodgson. Hodgson, Rogers recalls, was well versed in economic and political issues affecting Latin America.

“He, to me, was the coolest guy in the room all the time,” Rogers said. “And I thought – I want to be more like him. So that, in my mind, meant I want to be a journalist.”

Rogers discovered a publication in Costa Rica called Mesoamerica and wrote to the editor, Linda Holland, who asked him to send clips of his writing.

He had no writing clips. Instead, he waited 10 days and replied: ‘Excellent – I can start on Feb. 2.’

“She was confused,” Rogers said, laughing. “I just sort of baffled her to assume she had forgotten about some other email we had. I sort of fast talked my way into the back door.”

But it turned out Rogers could do the job well. He went on to freelance and later landed a full time job as a political reporter with The Tico Times, another Costa Rican newspaper. After four years there, Rogers’ editors agreed on his idea to move to Nicaragua to start a sister publication. He launched The Nica Times in 2005.

And he was back.

“Once I got there I just loved it,” he said.

The Nica Times, a weekly publication, was growing in readership and it eventually expanded online. His readers were everyone from tourists to ex-pats to English-speaking citizens to government workers.

But The Tico Times pulled the plug on The Nica Times in 2011. Rogers said the company was hemorrhaging money when the real estate crisis reached Costa Rica. Advertising stopped when building did. Rogers, who had been freelancing on rotation for outlets like the BBC, The Christian Science Monitor, and Time magazine, knew he’d be fine with the publication shuttering.

His local audience, though, wasn’t satisfied. They wanted Rogers to continue his work and provided him with a lump of start-up capital to launch The Nicaragua Dispatch, an online-only publication.

“It worked kind of well,” he said. “It kept me in the news cycle and made it, actually, easier for me to freelance.”

After two years, though, money was tight. Rogers was freelancing, but was living month-to-month. The Nicaragua Dispatch was on similar, unstable ground.

When Rogers received a Nieman fellowship from Harvard University in 2013, he posted a farewell letter editorial on The Nicaragua Dispatch. But once again, Rogers witnessed a wave of resistance from readers far and near. They asked Rogers to continue and told him how valuable the publication was for not only getting news about Nicaragua, but for creating a community.

“I realized: This thing is more than just me,” Rogers said.

Rogers created what he calls a “community sandbox” on the Nicaragua Dispatch site. Readers who sign up to be contributors can send articles that are published on the site’s Community Dispatch page.

“It’s just a way of letting them sort of keep the conversation going,” he said.

After the Nieman fellowship, Rogers received a job offer from Fusion, a joint media venture between Univision and ABC. Though this meant leaving Nicaragua for Miami, his job as an editor allows him to travel back to Latin America about once a month.

But Rogers’ wistful eye turns wary when he recalls his experience as a foreign journalist. He witnessed the Ortega administration’s buy-up of media outlets across the country and hostility toward the independent press. As a non-official journalist that gave mixed reviews of government policy, Rogers garnered clandestine attention. Rogers is sure his phone was tapped.

How does he know? They were bad at it.

“The phone would keep ringing and you could hear somebody breathing on the other end,” he said.

Rogers said the bullying and suspicious activity came to a head following November 2008, when the Sandinistas “stole the municipal elections.”

Journalists were targeted with corporal force. The Nicaragua Center for Human Rights reported that a dozen masked assailants destroyed the equipment within the studios of three private radio stations in León on Nov. 19, 2008. The Committee to Protect Journalists also reported that Sandinistas stabbed local Confidencial reporter Iván Olivares with a bayonet while he was covering clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters.

Rogers said his friend and Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, during the same period, was accused and detained of a crime that doesn’t exist in the Nicaraguan legal code.

Rogers said he never felt directly threatened, mainly because he was a well-known “white male gringo.”

“They can bully and they can beat up their own, but if they do it to me it’s a different thing,” he said, pointing out the negative media attention in would attract. “There are Nicaraguan journalists who are threatened all the time. They didn’t use the exact same tactics on me.”

Although the government has loosened its grip since 2008, Rogers said he believes things will get worse before they get better. He believes the current squeeze on political opposition and Ortega’s consolidation of power is just another dark phase of Nicaraguan history.

“Nicaraguans have this sort of brilliant spirit of resistance,” he said. “Nicaragua always pushes back eventually. The problem is that when they do, it gets ugly. So you sort of have to be afraid of that too.”

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