The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, but the government used administrative, judicial, and financial means to limit the exercise of these rights. Although the law provides that the right to information cannot be subjected to censorship, it also establishes retroactive liability, including criminal penalties for libel and slander.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: Some individuals suffered reprisals for expressing opinions in public on matters of special importance to the ruling party. On February 26, civil society figure Carlos Bonilla and his wife and fellow activist, Gabriela Garcia, both well-known members of the opposition and outspoken critics of the government, received multiple knife wounds and bruises when five men attacked them. The two were on their way to present the CSE with results from a survey conducted by their organization regarding public perception of inefficiency and corruption within the CSE. According to eyewitness reports, neighbors captured and held two of the attackers and presented them to the police. The police never announced an investigation into the attack and never released any information on the whereabouts of the detained.
Press and Media Freedoms: Independent media faced official and unofficial restrictions, reprisals, and harassment but were generally allowed to express a variety of views. The government restricted media freedom through harassment, censorship, and use of arbitrary justifications based on pending legislation and alleged national security concerns. Private individuals sympathetic to the government also harassed the media for criticizing the government.
On October 7, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a prominent civil society leader and owner of the leading investigative weekly newspaper Confidencial, said that in September, two workers on his staff were separately approached and intimidated by members of the ruling party and by a military official. In each case the party members questioned the staffers on the internal workings of the newspaper, requested a list of visitors to the offices, access codes to the newspaper website, and descriptions of the security measures protecting their workplace. The military dismissed Chamorro’s accusations.
The government continued to use direct and indirect means to pressure and seek to close independent media outlets, allegedly for political reasons. Independent media owners continued to express concern that incidents of vandalism, seizure of broadcast equipment, and fear of criminal defamation charges created a climate of self-censorship, which the government could exploit to limit press freedom. Independent news outlets reported that generally they were not permitted to attend official government events, were denied interviews by government officials, and received restricted or no direct access to government information. Official media, however, were not similarly restricted.
Since 2008 the General Law (Law 200) on Telecommunications has been in review in the National Assembly. Until the reforms are approved or denied, media outlets are unable to apply for new broadcasting licenses. Nevertheless, the government granted licenses in a discretionary manner and extended the validity of existing licenses indefinitely. Human rights groups and the media criticized the legal insecurity created by the lack of telecommunications legislation, given that Law 200 regulates routine administrative processes, such as the purchase and import of goods related to broadcasting and license adjudication. Furthermore, radio owners reported were afraid of deferring long-term investments due to the lack of updated licenses.
In one example, the transfer of ownership of leading independent radio station Radio Dario in Leon, following the 2014 death of the station’s founder, Juan Toruno, remained unresolved. Toruno’s son, who served as Radio Dario’s general manager, filed documents shortly after his father’s death for the administrative action of transferring ownership. Citing the pending status of Law 200, officials had yet to finalize the process, leaving the station vulnerable to seizure or closure.
The Communications Research Center of Nicaragua (CINCO) reported that control over television media by the FSLN and President Ortega continued throughout the year. National television increasingly was controlled either by business associates of the president or directly owned and administered by President Ortega’s family members. Eight of the 10 basic channels available were under direct FSLN influence or owned and controlled by persons with close ties to the government.
Generally, media stations owned by the presidential family limited news programming and served as outlets for progovernment or FSLN propaganda and campaign advertisements. Press and human rights organizations claimed the use of state funds for official media, as well as biased distribution of government advertising dollars, placed independent outlets at an unfair disadvantage. Independent media asserted the moratorium on granting new government broadcasting licenses, combined with the uncertainties of the National Assembly’s protracted telecommunications review, contributed to legal insecurity and shrinking opportunities for private investment. Some independent media owners also alleged the government exerted pressure on private firms to limit their advertising in the independent media, although other observers believed the lack of advertising was the result of self-censorship by private companies or a business decision based on circulation numbers.
In January officials, apparently from the Nicaraguan Telecommunications Office, seized the broadcast equipment of independent station Radio Emperador. The individuals overseeing the seizure were not identifiable as public servants and did not present themselves as such, yet they informed officials from the station that the station’s documentation was not in order.
Violence and Harassment: One of the largest daily newspapers, opposition-leaning La Prensa, claimed that government officials and supporters regularly intimidated journalists, actively hindered investigations, and failed to respond to questions on a variety of problems, particularly those involving the constitution, rule of law, and corruption. There were several reported cases of threats against the press.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Many journalists practiced self-censorship, fearing economic and physical repercussions for investigative reporting on crime or official corruption. Additionally, media outlet owners exercised self-censorship by choosing not to publish news that affected public perceptions of the government or the FSLN. Slander and libel are both punishable under the law with fines structured around the minimum wage. The penalties for slander and libel range from 120 to 300 times the minimum daily wage.
The government continued to enforce the controversial Law 528, or “Ley Arce,” which print media owners and international NGOs claimed restricted the public’s access to independent and opposition newspapers through the establishment of high tariffs and bureaucratic delays on the importation of ink, paper, machinery, and other printing necessities, despite protections in the constitution protecting the right to freedom from tariffs for media. Journalist organizations expressed concern regarding the lack of government support for the media sector and their organizations.
Libel/Slander Laws: Although during the year the government did not use libel laws or cite national security to suppress publications, independent media reported engaging in self-censorship due to the government’s previous use of libel laws.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content; however, several NGOs claimed the government monitored their e-mail without appropriate legal authority. Additionally, paid government supporters used social media and website commentary spaces to harass prominent members of civil society, human rights defenders, and a well-known journalist.
The International Telecommunication Union reported that approximately 20 percent of citizens used the internet in 2015.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were some government restrictions on academic freedom, and many academics and researchers reported pressure to censor themselves. There were no government restrictions on cultural events.
Human rights NGOs and civil society groups reported authorities required students in elementary and secondary public schools to participate in progovernment rallies while schools were in session. Political propaganda for the ruling party was seen on walls inside public schools. Teacher organizations and NGOs alleged continuing FSLN interference in the school system through the use of school facilities as FSLN campaign headquarters, favoritism shown to members of FSLN youth groups or children of FSLN members, politicized issuance of scholarships, and the use of pro-FSLN education materials.