MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Jaime Chamorro, a member of Central America’s most prominent journalism dynasty, remembers the first time he felt the government’s wrath.
The Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza Garcia, had shut down his family’s newspaper and forced his father into exile.
“I was 10,” Chamorro says.
Seventy-five years later, La Prensa has become a legend for its fearless reporting and editorials — and its persistence. It has been closed, temporarily, by right- and left-wing governments alike. One editor was assassinated. Its headquarters were bombed.
But now, the paper might be facing its greatest threat yet.
“They’ve cut off our newsprint,” said Chamorro, the publisher, sitting in an office crammed with papers and photos of his family.
La Prensa is a target of one of the most severe clampdowns on independent media in the hemisphere. Over the past year, as President Daniel Ortega has crushed a student-led rebellion, his government has raided news organizations and harassed and jailed reporters. More than 100 journalists have gone into exile, according to the U.N. human rights body.
The government customs office has held up La Prensa’s imports of newsprint and ink since October, according to its editors. Nicaragua’s leading daily is now a skeletal eight pages — down from 36.
While La Prensa operates a website, it still draws most of its income from its newspaper. As its supply of newsprint dwindles, the entire organization could be forced to close.
“This is the most critical situation we have lived in peacetime,” said Eduardo Enríquez, the paper’s editor.
La Prensa has a long history of scrapping with Ortega, the onetime Marxist revolutionary — and Ronald Reagan nemesis — who led Nicaragua’s Sandinista government in the 1980s. Back then, Ortega shut down the paper for more than a year, charging that it supported U.S.-funded rebels.
Ortega, who returned to the presidency in 2007 and has been reelected twice since, has become increasingly authoritarian. His government did not respond to a request for an interview.
If he succeeds in throttling La Prensa, Nicaragua will lose not only its oldest daily but also an institution entwined with the country’s modern history.
Its most famous editor, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro — Jaime’s brother — was gunned down in 1978, swinging public opinion against Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the last of the three Somoza dictators.
The killing helped sweep the Sandinistas into power. Ortega ruled until 1990, when Chamorro’s widow Violeta, who had succeeded him as publisher of La Prensa, defeated him at the polls to win the presidency.
Today, the paper reflects a country gripped by fear. On a recent day, its home page featured an article on political prisoners and a video showing police firing tear gas at protesters.
“La Prensa symbolizes the heart of the Nicaraguan media,” said Guillermo Rothschuh Villanueva, a prominent scholar of journalism.
Its closure, he said, would be “a mortal blow.”
Jaime Chamorro, 85, works from a cluttered office in a small, palm-shaded building behind La Prensa’s headquarters. He moved there after the national guard and air force attacked the paper in 1979, in Somoza’s waning days in power.
“They burned everything except this,” Chamorro said. “It was a warehouse.”
Such turmoil had been a constant in the 93-year history of the newspaper. By 2007, though, when Ortega returned to power, Nicaragua seemed to have entered a calmer era. He warmed to private enterprise and promised moderate policies.
But in 2018, the country was again engulfed by political upheaval, as protests over cuts to the social security program swelled into a nationwide movement calling for Ortega’s resignation. More than 325 people were killed as police and paramilitaries battled demonstrators. (The government has called the uprising a U.S.-financed coup attempt.)
Reporters covering the rebellion were threatened and their equipment seized. Some fled the country.
As the economy shriveled, so did La Prensa’s advertising sales. Then came the dispute over the 92 tons of newsprint stuck in Nicaraguan customs. Chamorro said that an administrative court ordered customs officials to release the newsprint but that they have not budged.
“They have an order from on high not to provide it,” the publisher said.
The customs office did not respond to a request for comment.
The office has also restricted deliveries to El Nuevo Diario, the country’s second-most-important newspaper. The broadsheet started publishing as a tabloid last week for the want of newsprint.
As La Prensa has hemorrhaged money, its newsroom has shrunk from 100 to about 35 journalists. Enríquez said it no longer does investigative reporting.
“We can’t dedicate a team to a story that could take four, five, six days, or two weeks,” he said.
It has also fought off massive cyberattacks — including one in May, when bots fired 11,000 requests per second at the website, according to its managers.
The paper has tried to expand its daily circulation of about 25,000 by focusing on its fledgling website, which attracts around 2 million unique users a month. But like most news organizations, La Prensa will need time before online subscription income can maintain its newsroom.
“The independent media are in danger of disappearing,” Enríquez said.
Not everyone is as pessimistic. Carlos Fernando Chamorro, 63, is Jaime’s nephew. Like his grandfather, he has gone into exile because of his journalism.
In an especially chilling move, police hauled away the founder and news director of 100% Noticias in December on terrorism charges. The journalists spent 172 days in jail before being freed as part of a release of political prisoners.
“This is the bad part of the story,” Carlos Fernando Chamorro said. “But I see in this crisis the great capacity of the Nicaraguan press to resist.”
His newsroom in Managua has not been allowed to reopen. But Chamorro edits his site from abroad, with newsgathering by reporters still in Nicaragua.
“We haven’t stopped producing information and investigating and criticizing,” he said.
When Chamorro’s TV program was forced off the air in Nicaragua, he moved it to YouTube and Facebook Live.
His work as one of the leaders of Nicaragua’s independent media is not without its ironies. In the early years of the Sandinista government, he edited the party’s official newspaper, Barricada — and regularly blasted La Prensa.
He was kicked out of the Sandinista paper in 1994, as he became convinced the party needed to become more democratic.
La Prensa is no longer the dominant institution it was back when his father was slain, Chamorro said.
“Today it’s part of a whole group of media” that feel free to criticize the government, he said. “But it continues to carry a lot of weight and have a lot of influence.”
It is unclear how much longer it will have that clout. One Friday in January, La Prensa appeared with a blank front page, to highlight the threat posed by the government’s stranglehold on its newsprint.
“Have you imagined living without information?” it asked in an editorial.
Ismael Lopez Ocampo contributed to this article.