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 country’s executive, legislative, judicial, and electoral functions. President Ortega awarded himself a fourth consecutive term in November elections after arbitrarily jailing nearly 40 opposition figures, barring all credible opposition political parties from participating, blocking legitimate international observation efforts, and committing widespread electoral fraud. Independent observer groups and international organizations characterized the electoral process as seriously flawed, lacking credibility, and defined by historically low voter turnout. The 2021 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 eliminated restrictions on re-election of 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 is responsible for 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, armed, and masked units 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. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearances; torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by prison guards and parapolice; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detentions; political prisoners; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located in another country; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy; punishment of family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including threats of violence, unjustified arrests, censorship, criminal libel suits against journalists; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, and operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; severe restrictions on religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement within the country and the right to leave the country; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious corruption; serious government restrictions on and harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting ethnic minorities and indigenous communities; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex persons; and the worst forms of 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 355 killings and hundreds of disappearances during the prodemocracy uprising of April 2018. The government did not address instances of widespread corruption. President Ortega actively strengthened impunity for human rights abusers who were loyal to him.
Police, 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 and their families, farmworker activists, prodemocracy opposition groups, human rights defenders, private-sector leaders, and Catholic clergy.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Human rights organizations and independent media alleged some killings were politically motivated, an allegation difficult to confirm because the government refused to conduct official inquiries.
Reports of killings were common in the north-central regions and the North Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACN). Human rights groups said these killings illustrated a continuation of a campaign of terror in the north-central and RACN regions, perpetrated by parapolice groups to stamp out political opposition to the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party. On March 29, unknown assailants shot Ernesto Jarquin five times in the chest in the north-central town of Mulukuku. Imprisoned in 2018 for participating in prodemocracy protests in Mulukuku, Jarquin was released with other political prisoners under a 2019 amnesty law. The Nicaraguan National Police (NNP) and official media reported Jarquin’s killing by focusing on the government’s previous allegations of Jarquin’s involvement in homicide, illegal weapons possession, collusion to commit crimes, and kidnapping in association with his participation in 2018 prodemocracy protests. As of October no arrests had been made in the case.
On August 23, land invaders linked to the ruling FSLN party killed at least 13 indigenous persons. The attack happened near Musawas, in the Sauni As territory, in a protected area of the Bosawas biosphere reserve. The attack included rape and dismemberment. On September 8, police stated the attack stemmed from a quarrel over an artisanal gold mining site and that police had identified 14 assailants and captured three. Witnesses and indigenous rights defenders disputed the findings and said police had arrested individuals other than those identified as perpetrators by the community and had failed to address the root causes that lead to such attacks.
There was no indication the government investigated crimes committed by police and parapolice groups related to the 2018 prodemocracy uprising. In April 2018 President Ortega and Vice President Murillo ordered police and parapolice forces to suppress violence peaceful protests that began over discontent with a government decision to reduce social security benefits. By late November 2018, the ensuing conflict had left at least 355 persons dead; more than 2,000 injured; thousands forced into hiding; hundreds illegally detained and tortured; and as of September, more than 130,000 in exile in neighboring countries. Beginning in August 2018, the Ortega government instituted a policy of “exile, jail, or death” for anyone perceived as opposition, amended terrorism laws to include prodemocracy activities, and used the justice system to prosecute civil society actors as terrorists, assassins, and coup mongers. Police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office detained, brought to trial, and imprisoned many members of the prodemocracy opposition. Human rights organizations documented that the investigations and prosecutions did not conform to the rule of law. The government continued to make no effort to investigate several 2017 incidents of extrajudicial killings and torture in both the North and South Caribbean Autonomous Regions. The army continued to deny its involvement in cases perceived by human rights organizations as politically motivated extrajudicial killings.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, 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 members of media. 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. 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 Expression: The government used reprisals and Law 1055 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. Beginning in May, the government used the law as a pretext to arrest and imprison presidential candidates, independent journalists, civil society members, opposition leaders, NGO workers, student leaders, human rights defenders, farmworker advocates, and private-sector leaders who criticized the government. 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.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, albeit mainly through online venues due to the government’s restrictions and intimidation. In June and July, the government arrested five independent journalists, including three presidential precandidates, and the general manager of the country’s largest print daily newspaper on charges of “undermining national integrity.” As of October the general manager and three of the journalists were awaiting trials while in prison, and two journalists remained under house arrest. The Public Prosecutor’s Office summoned at least 32 journalists as part of an investigation into alleged money laundering against the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, an NGO that supported independent media by offering journalism training programs. In some cases the journalists had received seed funding to pursue new digital startups or other forms of independent journalism. At least 30 journalists fled into exile due to threats or summons from the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which in the case of other independent journalists and political opponents resulted in imprisonment.
Independent media outlets experienced vandalism, seizure of broadcast equipment, cyberattacks, and criminal defamation charges. On August 13, after a public complaint by the newspaper La Prensa that the Customs Office had withheld its paper and printing material for months, police raided the newspaper’s headquarters and detained the general manager, preventing him from accessing legal counsel and detaining him for several weeks without bringing him before a judge. Police held La Prensa journalists and staff for hours inside the newspaper’s offices and allowed progovernment media to enter and film the police raid. Police later announced the raid was part of an investigation into the newspaper for money laundering and tax evasion. La Prensa, the last remaining daily print newspaper with national distribution, moved to online-only content and dismissed half its employees in September because of government persecution.
The government repeatedly denied broadcasting licenses and other permits for independent media. 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. According to a September report by the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro foundation titled Assault on Independent Press in Nicaragua between December 2020 and June 2021, there were 1,176 assaults on journalists while they performed their duties. Of those, 426 assaults were perpetrated against female journalists and included sexual violence and threats of rape.
Significant state influence, ownership, and control over the majority of media outlets 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. On June 30, the governing authority for telecommunications published a decree obliging all private cable stations to lock in their broadcasts to official television and radio for emergency or special interest messaging. This decree compounded the already established obligation for open-air television and radio stations to do the same. This obligation was enforced every time the president participated in a public event, even when it was a political party event. 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 extreme disadvantage.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subject to government violence, harassment, and death threats. Four journalists remained in prison: three after they indicated they would run as presidential candidates and one for expressing his views on social media. Two others remained under house arrest. Since May more than 30 journalists fled into exile with pending accusations against them from the Public Prosecutor’s Office. At least 90 journalists had already fled following the government’s crackdown on protesters in 2018. The Ministry of Health took possession of offices belonging to television station 100% Noticias and news magazine Confidencial, which had been closed and under police custody since a 2018 raid of those facilities.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government continued to arbitrarily penalize those who published items counter to the ruling party’s ideology. The government restricted access to public events, obligated independent press to use official media to cover presidential activities, and actively used troll farms to amplify its own messaging or attack independent media websites. In November, Meta (Facebook’s parent company) announced the removal of troll farms operated by the government, implicating the telecommunications regulator TELCOR, the Supreme Court of Justice, and the Social Security Institute.
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: In February FSLN-aligned judge Jose Ernesto Martinez found journalist David Quintana guilty on trumped-up slander charges after Quintana was accused by a staff member of an official television station in 2020. Another FSLN-aligned judge, Fatima Rosales, denied Quintana’s request for appeal in April. In June a judge denied an appeal on behalf of independent radio station director Kalua Salazar in a slander case brought against Salazar by FSLN municipal workers. 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 exemplified 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.” The government used and threatened further use of 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. On September 7, the Public Prosecutor’s Office accused indigenous rights activist Amaru Ruiz of cybercrimes after he reported extensively on social media about the killing of 13 indigenous persons by individuals suspected by human rights groups to have ties to the government. Penalties for online crimes include prison time and hefty fines, disproportionate to the crimes as broadly defined by the law.
A police 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.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The government did not respect the legal right to public assembly, demonstration, and mobilization. Prodemocracy marches and protests continued to be banned 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.
Police routinely surrounded, surveilled, and threatened meetings of political parties and civil society organizations. Police entered private meeting spaces to disrupt gatherings of opposition parties and civil society organizations.
Freedom of Association
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 legally employ workers. 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.
Beginning in February, the government began enforcing the 2020 Foreign Agents Law with far-reaching implications for entities and employees of entities receiving funding from outside the country. The 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. Additionally, NGOs need to present their legal accreditation, subject to annual renewal by the ministry. Many NGOs complained that the ministry purposefully withheld or delayed this accreditation, which led to the loss of their legal status. 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. The Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation decided to close before the deadline to register to avoid being labeled a foreign agent. The government, through the Public Prosecutor’s Office, accused the NGO, its staff, and the beneficiaries of its grants of money laundering. Up to 142 individuals, including vendors, consultants, staff, and 32 journalists, were summoned for the investigation. Some NGO staff remained imprisoned during the government’s 90-day investigation period. In June the government placed Cristiana Chamorro, the foundation’s former executive director and a leading opposition presidential precandidate, under house arrest on related accusations of money laundering.