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 radio and television stations through raids, arson, blocking transmissions, and violence against journalists.
Freedom of Expression: The government used reprisals to restrict the ability of individuals to criticize the government. There were a number of incidents throughout the year in which public officials, including at the ministerial, congressional, and local government levels, were reportedly ousted for expressing their opinions through the independent media or on social media.
Independent media experienced vandalism, seizure of broadcast equipment, 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 limited or no direct access to government information. Official media, however, were not similarly restricted.
The government restricted symbolic speech. On May 5, a group of protesters changed the FSLN red and black colors at the base of a statue of Augusto Cesar Sandino at the entrance of the town of Niquinohomo to white and blue, the national flag colors. FSLN members responded violently and changed the colors back to red and black, which led to clashes between the groups. Starting on September 1, protesters started releasing white and blue balloons on city streets as a form of protest and to celebrate independence days (September 14 and 15). NNP officers arrested two boys for carrying a large bag full of white and blue balloons. On September 12, during a celebration of Central American independence, men in a vehicle with FSLN paraphernalia stopped a high school student who was wearing a white and blue bandana and carrying an Independence and Peace Torch and ordered her to remove the bandana or give the torch to someone else. The girl eventually took the bandana off and continued running with the torch.
Press and Media Freedom: 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. In May the entire news team of Channel 10, which was owned by a foreigner close to the FSLN party, threatened to resign after the station refused to cover the protests. When the station relented, allowing coverage to take place, the head of government station Channel 8’s news desk attempted to install himself as the news director of Channel 10. The Financial Analysis Unit launched a money-laundering investigation against Nicaraguan-Honduran general manager Carlos Pastora, reportedly blocking him from leaving the country and forcing him into refuge on August 22. On December 3, Pastora left the country and went into exile. Many observers alleged the timing of the investigation was in reprisal for the editorial line of the station’s news show.
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. 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 a disadvantage.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subject to government violence, harassment, and death threats. On April 20, two arsonists died while setting a fire that destroyed Radio Dario in Leon. The station’s owner attributed the attack to an FSLN National Assembly representative and a local FSLN leader. International human rights organizations believed the fires were set in retaliation for coverage of protests against social security reforms and subsequent government repression of such protests. A local Jinotepe radio station, Stereo Romance, was vandalized with graffiti calling for its journalists to be killed. FSLN-controlled Radio Ya and government-owned Radio Nicaragua were both victims of fires of unknown origin, with minimal damage. Beginning on November 30, police detained 100% Noticias owner Miguel Mora and his wife and threatened them on six different occasions; government sympathizers also made accusations to prosecutors that Mora committed murders during the political crisis. Television anchor Jaime Arellano went into self-imposed exile on November 25 after police repeatedly stopped his vehicle over the course of several days and personnel remained present outside his house. On December 3, the NNP forced the closure of two radio stations in the department of Leon and intimidated several high-profile journalists. On December 22, the NNP raided the 100% Noticias television studio and took apart their broadcasting equipment, while the Nicaraguan Telecommunications Regulator (TELCOR) ordered all cable stations to remove the television’s signal from their programming. The NNP detained the network’s owner and its editor in chief, Lucia Pineda, who were later charged with provoking, proposing, and conspiring to commit terrorism. Most of the staff of the station went into hiding or self-imposed exile, including talk show host Luis Galeano.
Progovernment sympathizers and Sandinista Youth destroyed cameras and stole television equipment during coverage of antigovernment protests that started on April 19. Sandinista Youth, parapolice forces, and NNP officers actively targeted and pursued independent journalists to intimidate and harass them. Members of the NNP raided and ransacked the offices of newspaper Confidencial with no warrant. The crackdown happened during the raid of nine civil society organizations by the police despite the newspaper’s lack of ties to the organizations. One of the largest daily newspapers, independent La Prensa, claimed government officials and supporters regularly intimidated its journalists, actively hindered investigations, and failed to respond to questions of general public interest, particularly those involving the constitution, rule of law, and corruption.
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.
On April 19, TELCOR cut the signal of five channels that were covering antigovernment protests. The four smaller stations affected reestablished their signal within a day, but independent 24-hour news channel 100% Noticias remained off the air until April 24. Owner Miguel Mora said he refused TELCOR’s request to stop covering the antigovernment protests, and its coverage was uninterrupted on Facebook. On October 27, TELCOR ordered that 100% Noticias be relocated from its position at the top of the local television dial–where it was referred to by virtually everyone as “Channel 15”–to a much less prominent slot at channel 63.
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. In late December, national print media, La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario, reported the government was delaying their import of ink and paper, which by late January 2019 would effectively end their already weakened ability to print newspapers.
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, however, granted licenses in a discretionary manner and 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. Additionally, 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 under the guise of protecting national security restricts criticism of government policies and officials.
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.
Several NGOs claimed the government monitored their email and online activity without appropriate legal authority. Domestic NGOs, Catholic Church representatives, journalists, and opposition members alleged the government monitored their email and telephone conversations. Government and banking websites associated with the FSLN faced politically motivated cyberattacks, as did opposition media. 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 government disclosed personally identifiable information to penalize the expression of opinions. As part of a continuing social media campaign against antigovernment 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.
The International Telecommunication Union reported approximately 30 percent of citizens used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were government restrictions on academic freedom, and many academics and researchers reported pressure to censor themselves.
UNAN fired more than 50 staff members without cause between August 13 and August 20. Many of those fired claimed the firings were in retaliation for expressing support for or otherwise agreeing with antigovernment protests.
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 issuance of scholarships, and the use of pro-FSLN education materials.
Combined NNP and parapolice forces shot live ammunition and forced their way into various public universities during student protests in violation of university autonomy.
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. Antigovernment marches and protests were allowed at times, but in several instances, the NNP and parapolice shot live ammunition at protesters. 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. On July 12-13, when student protesters sought refuge inside a Catholic church in Managua, NNP and parapolice shot live ammunition at the church.
Through various press releases and arrests, the NNP claimed protesters were responsible for destruction of public and private buildings, setting of fires, homicides, and looting. While the majority of protesters were peaceful, some turned violent as they responded to NNP and parapolice provocations and use of force by throwing stones and employing homemade mortars and weapons to defend their positions. Protesters sometimes tore down “Trees of Life,” giant, illuminated, tree-like sculptures Vice President Murillo had ordered installed along major thoroughfares. The OHCHR August 29 report noted “abuses committed by individuals who took part in the protests, including the killing and injuring of police officers and members of the Sandinista party and the destruction of public infrastructure.”
On September 28, the NNP issued a press release stating: “The NNP reiterates that the people and organizations that call for these illegal movements from which criminal and destructive activity has been promoted will be found responsible and face justice for any alteration and/or threat to the tranquility, work, life, and rights of people, families, and communities.” Civil society took the statement as effectively outlawing peaceful protests.
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 employ workers licitly. In late November and early December, the FSLN wielded its supermajority in the National Assembly to strip legal status from nine civil society organizations that work on transparency, democracy, environmental issues, and human rights.