Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
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.
FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY
The law recognizes the right to public assembly, demonstration, and mobilization but requires demonstrators to obtain permission for a rally or march by registering its planned size and location with the police. CENIDH and the Permanent Commission for Human Rights (CPDH) reported police generally protected or otherwise gave preferential treatment to progovernment FSLN demonstrations while disrupting or denying registration for opposition groups. In many cases police did not protect opposition protesters when progovernment supporters harassed or attacked them.
On November 30, groups opposing the planned construction of an interoceanic canal organized a nationwide protest centered in Managua. Organizers reported that police arbitrarily stopped thousands of protesters and prevented their participation, using tactics that included a heavy deployment of antiriot police at key rural intersections leading to the capital, using heavy machinery to block bridges and roads near communities where protesters lived and threatening to revoke licenses or seize buses and trucks from companies transporting demonstrators. NNP officials seized two vehicles owned by protest organizer and recognized leader of the anti-canal movement, Francisca Ramirez. The vehicles were later returned with significant damage. The NNP reportedly used rubber bullets on protesters, injuring several, and there were reports of traffic backups of up to 12 miles on highways leading into the capital due to checkpoints.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The law provides for freedom of association, including the right to organize or affiliate with political parties; however, the CSE and National Assembly used their accreditation powers for political purposes. National Assembly accreditation is mandatory for NGOs to receive donations. Domestic NGOs complained the Ortega administration’s control of access to funding from foreign donors reduced their ability to operate.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation for citizens and the government generally respected these rights. The government strictly controlled the entry of persons affiliated with some groups, specifically humanitarian and faith-based organizations.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government enforced strict controls for migrants seeking to cross the country from Costa Rica. The government reported the drowning deaths of at least 10 illegal migrants in Lake Nicaragua.
The Nicaraguan National Commission for Refugees had not met since 2015. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) noted that migration authorities generally refused to register any new asylum applications. UNHCR reported that in 2015, 185 new applications for asylum were registered but had not yet been considered. Another 205 claims were reported during the year, but UNHCR did not have further information on government actions regarding these requests. Opposition members noted the contrast between a lack of response to new requests for refugee status and asylum by the government, and the promptness with which former Salvadorian President Mauricio Funes received political asylum status. Without access to official information, it was impossible to know of other requests that were accepted and the swiftness with which they were processed.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
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.
Durable Solutions: According to UNHCR, the government recognized 61 persons for refugee status in 2015.