Nicaragua has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Daniel Ortega Saavedra and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo Zambrana. Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front party exercises total control over the executive, legislative, judicial, and electoral functions. President Ortega was inaugurated to a third term in office in January 2017 following a deeply flawed electoral process. The 2016 elections expanded the ruling party’s supermajority in the National Assembly, which previously allowed for changes in the constitution that extended the reach of executive branch power and the elimination of restrictions on re-election for executive branch officials and mayors. Observers noted serious flaws in municipal, regional, and national elections since 2008. Civil society groups, international electoral experts, business leaders, and religious leaders identified persistent flaws in the 2019 Caribbean regional and 2017 municipal elections and noted the need for comprehensive electoral reform.
The Nicaraguan National Police maintains internal security. The army is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities. Both report directly to the president, pursuant to changes in the police and army code in 2014. Parapolice, which are nonuniformed, masked, and armed groups with tactical training and organization, act in coordination with government security forces, under the direct control of the government, and report directly to the national police. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over police and parapolice security forces. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings, committed by the government or its agents; forced disappearances by parapolice forces; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by prison guards and parapolice; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detentions by police and parapolice; political prisoners and detainees; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located outside the country; a serious lack of independence of the judiciary; and arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy. There were serious restrictions on free expression and the press, including threats of violence, censorship, and criminal libel; and substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, as well as severe restrictions on religious freedom, including attacks on the Roman Catholic Church and church officials. The government continued to block nine nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations from recovering their legal status and illegally withheld their assets, preventing them from operating; during the year the government stripped one more nongovernmental organization of its legal status. Government restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly precluded any meaningful choice in elections. Elections for municipal authorities as well as for president and vice president and National Assembly representatives have been considered marred by fraud and irregularities since 2008. There was widespread corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; discrimination and violence against ethnic minorities and indigenous communities; threats and attacks against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; and child labor, including commercial sexual exploitation.
Parapolice and individuals linked to the Ortega regime carried out a campaign of harassment, intimidation, and violence toward perceived enemies of the regime, such as former political prisoners, campesino activists, prodemocracy opposition groups, human rights defenders, and Catholic clergy. Human rights groups alleged that between October 2018 and August, parapolice killed at least 30 campesinos considered to be opponents of the ruling party.
The government did not take steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses, including those responsible for at least 325 killings and hundreds of disappearances during the prodemocracy uprising of April 2018. President Ortega actively strengthened impunity for human rights abusers who were loyal to him.
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.