Miami (April 27, 2021).- Daniel Ortega's regime continues to besiege and persecute independent journalists in Nicaragua, and media confiscated in 2018 remain closed. At the end of 2020, three laws were approved that restrict freedom of association and financing of independent organizations and media, and criminalizing journalistic work through social media and the internet, with penalties from two to four years in prison.
The report on Nicaragua, presented at the Mid-Year Meeting of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) last week, detailed violations against press freedom, freedom of expression, and association. The organization issued a resolution on "Non-interference and freedom of association" including the case of Nicaragua and other countries.
Press freedom has experienced a marked deterioration since April 2018, when anti-government demonstrations were violently repressed by the Police. That repression included independent journalists - two of them were imprisoned for six months and dozens went into exile. Many spaces, websites and a cable TV channel were closed - and remain so since then.
Three years after the protests, the press freedom and political situations in the country have worsened. In November, there will be presidential and legislative elections, and no one expects them to be clean or fair.
The National Assembly - obeying orders from President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo - appointed a commission to elect the magistrates of the Supreme Electoral Council. But established that only the parties in parliament (the ruling party with super majority and some collaborationist parties) will be able to compete - in violation of the Constitution. The opposition to the regime, which emerged in the so-called April Rebellion of 2018, has no parliamentary representation. Despite the fact that Ortega faces an ultimatum from the Organization of American States to make democratic reforms to the electoral system, there is no indication that the elections will be free.
The martial law is still in place - with no meetings of three or more people allowed in public. The Police, the repressive force of the regime - which often relies on para-police units for its repressive actions - has as its main task the surveillance and harassment of opponents and independent journalists. They do not allow citizens to carry the national flag, which has become a symbol of civic rebellion - individual and peaceful. At events, journalists are attacked and their equipment is stolen, and legal action has become a new method of repression.
The government passed three laws late last year that affect press freedom, the first one seems designed to repress politicians and weed out candidates.
The law for the "Regulation of Foreign Agents" was dubbed the Putin Law because it is almost a carbon copy of a law promoted by Vladimir Putin in Russia in 2014. This law aims to control the financial operations and activities carried out by associations and domestic or foreign organizations, under the argument that it puts an end to foreign interference. The law is designed to prevent the financing of opposition parties and organizations ahead of the November elections, and also harms media outlets that receive support from different foundations. The law requires registration as a "foreign agent" and prior declaration of any donation - which must be approved by the Interior Ministry.
In January, the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation (FVBCH) - which supported almost two dozen small, mainly digital, independent media - closed its doors to avoid registration as a "foreign agent" with the Interior Ministry. Cristiana Chamorro - director of the Foundation - said that she "preferred to close the Foundation rather than become a foreigner in her own country."
Government legislators submitted and approved - without further consultation - the Special Cybercrime Bill, which in its explanatory statement sets as objectives "the preservation, investigation, prosecution and punishment of crimes committed via technology and communication, to the detriment of natural or legal persons, as well as the comprehensive protection of the systems that use such technologies, their contents and any of their components."
The law establishes penalties of two to four years imprisonment for "those who, using information and communication technology, publish or disseminate false and/or distorted information that may cause alarm, fear or anxiety in the population, or among a group or sector of the population or its family." The law has vague definitions and will force journalists to self-censor for fear of being prosecuted and convicted.
Ortega announced another law to establish "life imprisonment for hate crimes," after the murder of two young girls. In his statement, Ortega also referred to the political prisoners - most of whom have been released from prison since they were sentenced and convicted in the April Rebellion. However, there are still some 130 political prisoners - and none of those released have had their records expunged. Ortega alleged that "they had been given an amnesty," but the basic principle of amnesty was violated - which is to forget.
The pressure against the independent media continues. The seizure of Canal 12's assets continues - the Sandinista Judge Silvia Chica Larios dismissed all the evidence presented by the media's lawyers and ordered that the seizure be upheld for the US$ 600,000 requested by the General Tax Directorate (DGI). The four properties seized have a value of US$ 1,200,000. The claim dates back to 2011 and 2012, and was originally for US$ 262,000 - but an Administrative Court (TATA) reduced it to only US$ 24,000. Eight years later, the DGI appealed to the Constitutional Chamber to annul the ruling - and with fines and arrears, the amount reached US$ 600,000. The auction of the assets would force the closure of the channel.
In December, 2020, the facilities of channel 100% Noticias and Confidencial - seized by the Police and closed by the government in December, 2018 - were handed over to the Health Ministry, without any indictment or judicial decision. The media group's programs Esta Noche and Esta Semana, are only broadcast on social networks since they have been banned from broadcasting on open television or cable channels.
With the closure of the FVBCH, La Prensa has resumed hosting the freedom of expression reports on its website - they will post on a monthly basis. The first one was published in early April, and includes 53 violations of press freedom and 39 against individuals. It denounced the harassment against Kalúa Yakari Salazar - journalist and press chief of La Costeñísima radio station - convicted for the alleged crime of "slander" against three former employees of the El Rama mayor's office, on the southern Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Also reported was the harassment of Anibal Toruño - director of Radio Darío - and of journalist David Quintana - from Boletín Ecológico - convicted of libel and slander.
IAPA is a non-profit organization dedicated to the defense and promotion of freedom of the press and of expression in the Americas. It is made up of more than 1,300 publications from the western hemisphere; and is based in Miami, Florida, United States.