Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government did not respect this right. Restrictions on press freedom, the absence of an independent judiciary, and a nondemocratic political system combined to inhibit freedom of expression, including for the press. Although the law provides that the right to information may not be subjected to censorship, the government and actors under its control retaliated against the press and radio and television stations by blocking transmissions, impeding the import of ink and paper, and committing violence against journalists. Some independent media outlets also reported they were victims of cyberattacks. The government sought to control information on the COVID pandemic by restricting news coverage and blocking independent media access to public health briefings, as well as using government-aligned media to publish misinformation.
Freedom of Speech: The government used reprisals to restrict the ability of individuals to criticize the government. Persons who criticized the government, the ruling party, or its policies were subjected to police and parapolice surveillance, harassment, imprisonment, and abuse. Progovernment supporters considered the use of the national flag and the national colors of white and blue as acts of defiance and attacked opposition activists flying the flag or national colors. In August police arrested a woman after she refused to surrender a package of white and blue national flags she was selling in anticipation of the country’s independence day. She was released within a few hours without her merchandise.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views despite government attempts to restrict and intimidate them. Independent media outlets experienced vandalism, seizure of broadcast equipment, cyberattacks, and criminal defamation charges. The government repeatedly denied broadcasting licenses and other permits for independent media. Further attempts to intimidate came through continued financial audits and attempts by the Directorate General of Revenue to confiscate media channels based on spurious overdue tax debts, which resulted in referral of cases to the Customs and Administrative Tax Court. Independent news outlets faced restrictions on speech, such as not being permitted to attend official government events, being denied interviews by government officials, and receiving limited or no direct access to government information. Official media, however, were not similarly restricted. The government published false COVID-19 data that minimized the spread of the illness in the country. International reports and unpublished official documents showed the government intentionally misled the public about the severity of the pandemic to avoid an economic downturn.
Independent media faced official and unofficial restrictions, reprisals, and harassment, but they were nonetheless successful in expressing a variety of views. Journalists from many stations were threatened and harassed with the purpose of limiting their editorial independence. Journalist association Nicaraguan Independent Journalists and Communicators reported that between March and July, there were 351 incidents against independent journalists, including threats, attacks, harassment, criminal libel charges, and other impediments to carrying out their activities.
Significant state influence, ownership, and control over media continued. National television was largely controlled either by business associates of the president or directly owned and administered by his 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. Media stations owned by the presidential family generally 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 a disadvantage.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subject to government violence, harassment, and death threats. In January a police officer punched Channel 10 journalist Wilih Narvaez during a police crackdown on prodemocracy protesters inside a hotel. Despite hundreds of witnesses and widely viewed video evidence of these attacks, the government made no effort to investigate or prosecute those involved in the attacks. In March progovernment sympathizers beat and destroyed or stole the equipment of two journalists at the Managua cathedral while they were covering an FSLN disruption of a Catholic mass during the wake of a former poet laureate. In April unidentified attackers assaulted the father of exiled journalist Winston Potosme in the father’s home. After the assault the assailants sent the journalist threats from the father’s cell phone. The television station 100% Noticias and the offices of news magazine Confidencial remained closed and under police custody after the 2018 raid of those facilities.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government penalized those who published items counter to the ruling party’s ideology; however, it did this arbitrarily. The government restricted access to public events, obligated independent press to use official media to cover presidential activities, and on several occasions used YouTube copyright infringement regulations against independent media for using official media content. This legal tactic led to the temporary closure of at least two independent media YouTube channels.
To control printing presses, the government continued to enforce the controversial Law 528, or “Ley Arce,” which establishes high tariffs and bureaucratic delays on the importation of ink, paper, machinery, and other printing necessities, despite constitutional provisions protecting media’s right to freedom from such tariffs. After the closure of El Nuevo Diario in 2019 due to the government’s repressive posture and restrictions on press freedom, La Prensa remained the only independent newspaper with nationwide coverage.
In July, Radio Corporacion, an independent radio broadcaster, found its AM radio antenna sabotaged and its transmission cables dug up and cut into pieces. Radio station staff stated that unknown perpetrators carried out the attack with knowledge of where the sabotage could do the most damage. As a result, the radio station lost its ability to broadcast on the AM frequency for more than a week and moved all of its programming to an FM frequency. This resulted in lower listenership, particularly among rural listeners who rely principally on AM frequency for radio transmissions. In September, Radio Camoapa found the air-cooling device of their transmission room damaged. Radio Notimat in Matagalpa remained besieged by police and parapolice, who also surveilled and threatened its journalists.
Restrictions in acquiring broadcast licenses and equipment prevented media from operating freely. Beginning in 2008, media outlets were unable to apply for new broadcasting licenses while the General Law (Law 200) on Telecommunications was under review in the National Assembly. The government extended the validity of existing licenses indefinitely. Human rights groups and independent media also reported that the failure to approve or deny Law 200 resulted in uncertainty surrounding the purchase and import of goods related to broadcasting. As a result independent radio owners continued to defer long-term investments.
Some independent-media owners also alleged the government exerted pressure on private firms to limit advertising in 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. Many journalists practiced self-censorship, fearing economic and physical repercussions for investigative reporting on crime or official corruption. In addition media outlet owners exercised self-censorship by choosing not to publish news that affected public perceptions of the government or the FSLN.
Libel/Slander Laws: Government supporters accused independent journalists of slander. Three FSLN party members working in the municipal government of El Rama accused the director of Radio La Costenisima of slander after it broadcast a story documenting corruption in that municipality. When the previous director of the radio station died of COVID-19, authorities transferred the accusation to incoming director Kalua Salazar. Likewise, David Quintana from digital news outlet Boletin Ecologico was accused of slander by a staff member at an official television station. Two other journalists also faced similar charges. Slander and libel are both punishable by fines ranging from 120 to 300 times the minimum daily wage.
National Security: Human rights NGOs and civil society organizations argued the Sovereign Security Law was a basis for the government’s failure to respect civil liberties. Although not cited in specific cases, the law applies to “any other factor that creates danger to the security of the people, life, family, and community, as well as the supreme interests of the Nicaraguan nation.” In October the National Assembly passed the Cybercrimes Law, which includes as online crimes social media posts deemed dangerous by the regime and grants law enforcement access to information systems and other data. Penalties for online crimes include prison time and hefty fines, disproportionate to the crimes as broadly defined by the law.
An NNP regulation restricts criticism of government policies and officials under the guise of protecting national security.
There were credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority and in some cases restricted or disrupted access to the internet or censored online content. Independent media reported the government provided logistical support for “troll farms” that routinely carried out cyberattacks against opposition media websites and social media accounts. Trolls and bots reportedly tracked opposition and progovernment social media accounts to retaliate against users deemed opponents to the ruling party and amplify progovernment messaging.
Several NGOs claimed the government monitored their email and online activity without appropriate legal authority. Paid government supporters used social media and website commentary spaces to harass prominent members of civil society, human rights defenders, and well-known journalists.
The government disclosed personally identifiable information to penalize the expression of opinions. As part of a continuing social media campaign against prodemocracy protests, ruling party members and supporters used social media to publish personal information of human rights defenders and civil society members. Civil society members alleged government offices provided the information. Government supporters also used the personally identifiable information to mark the houses of civil society members with either derogatory slurs or threats, then published photographs of the marked houses on social media.
There were government restrictions on academic freedom, and many students, academics, and researchers reported pressure to censor themselves.
Public universities expelled from school and erased the records of many university students who participated in prodemocracy protests. In many cases, students who went into exile could not continue their studies abroad without their records. Entrances to public universities remained under surveillance by progovernment guards who regularly checked every visitor and often by police. Some university rectors reported university enrollment following the prodemocracy uprising fell to 50 percent of precrisis levels. The public Poly-Technical University (UPOLI) expelled opposition student leader Dolly Mora, claiming security issues. FSLN-controlled student groups at UPOLI harassed Mora and others who in 2018 had protested against the government’s violent crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrators. According to reports, leaders of these FSLN-controlled student groups threatened the dean of UPOLI with violence on campus to force Mora’s expulsion.
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 posted 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 to children of FSLN members, politicized awarding of scholarships, and the use of pro-FSLN education materials.
Public schools were ordered to continue in-person classes even as COVID-19 spread across the country. Teachers were ordered to punish absences and identify those students who were not attending classes. By August at least 46 public school teachers had died from COVID-19.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The government did not respect the legal right to public assembly, demonstration, and mobilization. Prodemocracy marches and protests were not allowed during the year. Police and parapolice actively persecuted, harassed, and occasionally impeded private meetings of NGOs, civil society groups, and opposition political organizations. Police failed to protect peaceful protesters from attacks; they also committed attacks and provided logistical support to other attackers. Human rights organizations reported police stopped traffic for and otherwise protected progovernment demonstrations.
The NNP consistently refused to accept applications or denied permits to use public spaces for prodemocracy marches, using unclear parameters. A denial of permission from the NNP resulted in significant repression and violence against protesters when they carried on with the protest. The NNP routinely surrounded, surveilled, and threatened meetings of political parties and civil society organizations. The NNP entered private meeting spaces to disrupt gatherings of opposition parties and civil society organizations.
The law provides for freedom of association, including the right to organize or affiliate with political parties; nevertheless, the Supreme Electoral Council and National Assembly used their accreditation powers for political purposes. National Assembly accreditation is mandatory for NGOs to receive funding, have bank accounts, or employ workers licitly. The Ministry of the Interior has oversight of regulatory compliance by NGOs and provides certificates. Many NGOs that worked on topics of democracy, human rights, and women’s issues complained the ministry purposefully withheld certification to hinder their work and access to funding. On October 15, the National Assembly passed a Foreign Agents Law with far-reaching implications for entities and employees of entities receiving funding from outside the country. The new law requires anyone receiving funding from foreign sources to register with the Ministry of the Interior and provide monthly, detailed accounts of how funds are intended to be used. Individuals who register as foreign agents cannot participate in internal politics or run for elected positions for up to one year after being removed from the registry. Failure to register can lead to fines, judicial freezing of assets, and the loss of legal status for associations or NGOs.
An internal guidance memorandum within the Ministry of the Interior approved in April 2019, but not made public until 2020, prohibits NGOs seeking certification from including political activities among their intended programming or engaging in partisan activities. NGOs working on political party leadership training, grassroots activism, and youth political capacity training considered the measure a threat against them. The government stripped social-work NGO ASODHERMU (Association of Sister Cities) of its legal status during the year. Members of the ruling party in the National Assembly accused the NGO of financing terrorism, a common accusation by the FSLN-controlled judiciary against political opponents. Leaders of the NGO considered the decision political. At least another nine NGOs remained without their legal accreditation after it was stripped in 2018.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government denied entry to citizens seeking to enter the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. From March to July, the government prevented citizens from returning from neighboring countries and cruise ships and did not establish legal provisions or any clear procedures to allow their return. In July the government began requiring a negative COVID-19 test for both foreigners and nationals seeking entry into the country. In August the government prevented approximately 500 citizens from entering the country via the border with Costa Rica until they could present a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of arrival to the border. The government did not procure these COVID-19 tests, which were ultimately obtained through private means by individual travelers or through Costa Rican NGOs. The government allowed this group to return to the country after they presented negative COVID-19 tests. The government strictly controlled the entry of persons affiliated with some groups, specifically humanitarian and faith-based organizations. The government may prevent the departure of travelers with pending cases; authorities used this authority against individuals involved in the protest movement. The law requires exit visas for minors.
According to contacts and local media, hundreds of participants in the 2018 prodemocracy protests and others who ran afoul of the Ortega regime remained in hiding to evade government persecution, including arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture. These individuals reported being unable to find work or study due to fear of government reprisals. As the root cause of this forced displacement, the government did not promote the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of internally displaced persons. In November, two major hurricanes displaced hundreds of thousands of persons from their homes. Observers reported that after the storms, the government initially withheld humanitarian assistance from victims who did not support the ruling party. The government does not have policies and protections for internally displaced persons in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.
The government does not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The government has not provided updated information on refugees or asylum seekers since 2015.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Only the executive branch or the country’s embassies abroad may grant asylum for political persecution. The Nicaraguan National Commission for Refugees has not met since 2015.
Durable Solutions: The government recognized 61 persons as refugees in 2015, the most recent year for which information was available. By mid-2018 UNHCR counted 326 refugees or persons in refugee-like situations in the country.
Registration of births in rural areas was difficult due to structural constraints, and the government took no measures to address this, resulting in a number of de facto stateless persons in the country (see section 6, Children).