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The fight for free press

Cristiana Lacayo (BSJ05, IMC06) - The fight for free press.

The Chamorro family and its publication, La Prensa, a leading independent newspaper in Nicaragua, have shaped the
course of the country’s history for more than 80 years.

Cristiana Lacayo’s (BSJ05, IMC06) great-grandfather, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Zelaya, purchased La Prensa in 1932. For Lacayo, La Prensa has become the voice of the country’s conscience. “La Prensa is so important,” Lacayo says. “It runs in the blood of the family.”

Lacayo works as a marketing director for a wire transfer company focusing on Latin America and is the only member of her family living in the United States. She looks forward to the day when she can take part in the family business.

As a child coloring on La Prensa’s pages, Lacayo quickly realized the power of the press. She considered majoring in communications in college but ultimately decided to study journalism at Medill. “I was drawn by how journalism can change a country,” she says. Medill was her top choice, and she loved the school’s approach of learning through hands-on experience. As an undergrad, she interned at the Miami Herald; El Nuevo Herald, the leading Spanish newspaper in the U.S.; and Hoy in Chicago. “I value how Medill taught me never to take no for an answer and created opportunities for students to get the information needed to write both sides of a story,” she adds.

Lacayo grew up in Nicaragua while her grandmother, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, and mother, Cristiana Chamorro, fought to keep La Prensa open amidst censorship, which became a part of La Prensa’s history early on. The paper was first censored in 1934 for being too critical of the government.

In 1952, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal (Chamorro), Lacayo’s grandfather, took over La Prensa following his father’s death and intensified the paper’s criticism of the Somoza regime, a family dictatorship that ruled Nicaragua from 1936 to 1979. Chamorro advocated for democracy and an independent, free newspaper. For this work he was tortured, exiled and repeatedly jailed. 

“The main interest of La Prensa is to defend the liberty of information at all cost and in any way without thinking about the benefits, losses or sacrifices, because that right is indispensable for the full liberty of Nicaragua,” Chamorro said in 1974.

In 1978, Chamorro was assassinated by an unidentified gunman. “La Prensa has always been a tool to fight for liberty of
expression,” Lacayo says. “My grandfather fought for it. He knew he might die fighting for that.” 

Chamorro’s death mobilized a national revolution against then president Anastasio Somoza Debayle. “After my grandfather’s death, a lot of people went out to the streets and said that if it was possible for a journalist or common person to be murdered, [Somoza’s regime] would murder anyone,” Lacayo says.

La Prensa continued under the direction of Chamorro’s widow, Violeta, and his family. When the Somoza regime was finally pushed out of power in 1979, Somoza ordered tanks to destroy La Prensa. The family rebuilt the newspaper from ashes.

As Nicaragua plunged into civil war in the 1980s, the Chamorro family, like many in the country, split between the ruling leftist Sandinistas and the conservative opposition, the Contras. Violeta led La Prensa, with the support of two of her four children, Cristiana and Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, against the Sandinistas. In response, Violeta’s brother-in-law, Xavier Chamorro, left La Prensa with a majority of the staff and started a pro-Sandinista newspaper, El Nuevo Diario. Her son, Carlos, became editor-in-chief of another pro-Sandinista publication, Barricada, named for the trenches Sandinistas would create to fight against the Somoza dynasty.

Violeta ran for president in 1990 after the civil war ended, and her pro-Sandinista family members attacked her and her allies in their publications. All the while, she encouraged her children to come together for dinners and holidays. She became the first elected female head of state in the Americas and the only female in the world to defeat an incumbent president.

Today, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega is president. The government has monopolized the media industry to offset the
influence of non-government publications. Defending the liberty of information still requires sacrifice.

Lacayo’s uncle, Carlos, routinely challenges Ortega in his broadcast program, “Esta Noche” and newsletter, “Confidencial.” In retaliation, Ortega directed police to raid Carlos’s office in 2008. Columbia University awarded Carlos the Cabot Prize, “honoring journalism that contributes to inter-American understanding,” in 2010.

To promote journalism, civil society and democratic institutions in Nicaragua, the Chamorro family established the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation in 1998. Each year, the foundation and the United Nations award the Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal Prize for Excellence in Journalism. The prize honors Nicaraguan journalists who continue to fulfill Chamorro’s lifelong ambition: to keep vigil for personal liberty. For his wife and children, his ambition continues to be their personal crusade.

Lacayo’s mother still writes opinion pieces and sits on the board of directors for La Prensa. Like her mother, Lacayo is passionate about her country, its people and carrying on the legacy of her grandfather. “The spirit of my grandfather runs through everything we do,” Lacayo says. “We will always defend the right to be free until the last moment, utilizing any of the resources we have.”