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 (FSLN) 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 March 3 Caribbean regional and 2017 municipal elections and noted the need for comprehensive electoral reform.
The Nicaraguan National Police (NNP) maintain 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 NNP. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over police and parapolice security forces.
From February to June, the government released 494 purported political prisoners in the context of the national dialogue. Some of those released appeared to have been common criminals; human rights groups claimed only 344 of those released were actually political prisoners. Since April the government detained 161 new political prisoners, including reimprisoning some individuals who were previously released. On December 30, the government released 91 political prisoners, leaving 70 imprisoned.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings, committed by the government or its agents; forced disappearance by parapolice forces; torture by prison guards and parapolice; physical abuse, including rape, by government officials; and arbitrary detentions by police and parapolice. There were harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; 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, including attacks on the Roman Catholic Church and church officials. The government continued to block nine nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations from recovering their legal status and illegally withheld their assets, preventing them from operating. Government restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly precluded any meaningful choice in elections. There was widespread corruption; trafficking in persons; attacks against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; discrimination against ethnic minorities and indigenous communities; and child labor.
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.
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 or farmers activists, prodemocracy opposition groups, and Roman Catholic clergy. Human rights groups alleged that between October 2018 and August, parapolice killed between 20 and 30 campesinos considered to be opponents of the ruling FSLN party. Crimes committed by parapolice against these individuals were not investigated or prosecuted.
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 violence against journalists. Some independent media outlets also reported they were victims of cyberattacks.
Freedom of Expression: The government used reprisals to restrict the ability of individuals to criticize the government.
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, arrest, and fear of criminal defamation charges. The government repeatedly denied broadcasting licenses and other permits for independent media. Further attempts to intimidate came through continued financial audits performed by the Directorate General of Revenue, 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 restricted symbolic speech. Prodemocracy protesters were arrested on many occasions for displaying the national flag as a protest banner.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: 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.
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. Renowned journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro went into exile in January after receiving harassment and death threats. On November 25, he returned, along with five other journalists. The television station 100% Noticias and the offices of news magazine Confidencial remained closed and under police custody after the December 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 not do this according to specific guidelines.
To control printing presses, the government continued to enforce the controversial Law 528, or “Ley Arce,” which established high tariffs and bureaucratic delays on the importation of ink, paper, machinery, and other printing necessities, despite constitutional provisions protecting the media’s right to freedom from such tariffs. By September the government had not allowed national, independent print media La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario to import ink, paper, or machine parts to continue printing for more than one year. This led to significant increase in printing costs and restrictions of printing capacity of both daily newspapers. On September 27, after nearly 40 years in business, El Nuevo Diario announced its permanent closure, citing “economic, technical, and logistical difficulties, which made [its] operation unsustainable.”
In September 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.
Restrictions in acquiring broadcast licenses and equipment prevented the 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 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: Although during the year the government did not use libel laws, independent media reported engaging in self-censorship due to the government’s previous use of libel laws. 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.”
An NNP regulation restricts criticism of government policies and officials under the guise of protecting national security.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
c. Freedom of Religion
For more information, see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, 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. 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.
f. 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. The Nicaraguan National Commission for Refugees had 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 the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees counted 326 refugees or persons in refugee-like situations in the country.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
While the law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage and conducted by secret ballot, restrictions on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association, and institutional fraud, among other obstacles, precluded opportunities for meaningful choice.