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Earlier this month, five journalists in Nicaragua were assaulted while covering the funeral of one of the country’s most prominent poets and liberation theologians, Ernesto Cardenal. 

The attack on March 3 was carried out by supporters of country’s political leader Daniel Ortega and saw two of the journalists taken to hospital for emergency treatment. One week later, one of the reporters, Hans Lawrence Ramírez, was rushed back to hospital due to kidney failure linked to the brutal attack.

Later that week, on March 8, police detained Emiliano Chamorro, director of digital media outlet Portavoz Ciudadano. He was released the same day but was placed under police surveillance.

Rather than isolated incidents, these attacks on journalists are symptomatic of a far wider and engrained hostility towards media in the Central American country.

The country’s current crackdown on press freedom, and human rights more widely, began on April 18, 2018 when the government started to use repression and violence as a response to civil protests. A few days later on April 21, a journalist and the editor of El Meridiano, Ángel Gahona, was killed in the protests while nine other journalists were wounded. Two years later, press freedom is still under siege.

Unwavering press freedom violations

Since the civil unrest began, the number of press freedom violation and abuse of journalists have skyrocketed. Between March 2018 and December 2019, Nicaraguan human rights monitoring group Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation documented 1,979 different press freedom violations.

Making up the majority of these cases are around 1000 administrative restrictions against two of the country’s leading media outlets, La Prensa and Diario Hoy. The rights group classifies these violations under “the abuse of state power”.

These operational restrictions have suffocated the outlets economically by starving them of revenue. In February 2020, for example, the government lifted a 70-week-long ban on La Prensa. Nicaraguan Directorate General of Customs had unlawfully withheld hundreds of tons of paper and other supplies from the newspaper putting at risk its almost 100-year-long business.

“In the past months press freedom violations have continued at the same pace”, Guillermo Medrano, human rights coordinator at the Foundation, told the International Press Institute (IPI). “Even after the lifting of ban on La Prensa, the numbers remain high. In February alone we documented 35 cases of press freedom violations”, he explained.

“On February 25 this year alone, there were 12 cases of attacks, intimidations, and death threats against journalists”, Medrano said.

Being a journalist covering current events is a dangerous task in Nicaragua. Those documenting human rights violations frequently become victims of violations themselves. “Citizens who want to wave a flag or openly protest against the government, as well as the reporters who document all this are immediately targeted by police with violent attacks”, Medrano explained.

The Nicaraguan media landscape is further repressed by media companies Ortega’s family members bought out. They own six national TV broadcasters and use them as them as mouthpiece for spreading propaganda.

Phases of violations

After observing press freedom situation in the past two years, the Foundation concluded that the government has been employing different types of attacks that correspond to several phases of press freedom violations.

“The first phase was marked by direct attacks against journalists”, Medrano said. “There are no safety guarantees for those who engage in independent journalism in Nicaragua”.

“The second phase was marked by the discrediting of journalists and the use of stigmatizing language” Medrano continued. “During this phase vice-president Rosario Murillo was particularly vocal, labelling journalists as ‘enemies of the people’.” Many of those targeted by the government were those in self-imposed exile, having fled the country, he explained. For the government, discrediting them on social media was the only tactic available.

The third phase consisted of obstructing the work of media outlets. El Confidencial and 100% noticias were raided and closed down by the police in December 2018. Despite both outlets’ offices still being guarded by police, both continue to report. The same month the director of 100% Noticias, Miguel Mora, and journalist Lucía Pineda Ubau were arrested and eventually imprisoned for six months.

“After a fourth phase that consisted of defamation campaigns against journalists, the government has turned a full circle and came back to attacking of journalists as a main instrument for press freedom violations”, Medrano said. This phase, beginning in March 2019, is still dominant in the country, he said.

Media outlets shut down but not silenced

“After being closed down, Confidencial was dropped from the national broadcasting frequency and from cable providers”, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the director of Confidencial, told IPI. “We operate under harsh censorship, but we continue to transmit information to the public through programmes that are broadcasted via social media, Facebook and YouTube.”

“Our headquarters are under police siege, but our journalists continue to report from their homes”, Chamorro said.

The police justification for shutting down the media is vague and ill-grounded. Chamorro explained that the government ordered Confidencial’s closure in connection with the shutting of an NGO called the Communication Research Center (CINCO) — another institution persecuted by the government. However, the only element that ties the NGO to the media outlet is that Chamorro is a member of CINCO’s executive board. “Confidencial is a private firm registered under the company register of Nicaragua. The official justification for the occupation of our media is, in fact, an admission that the government is breaking the law”, he said.

“There is no press freedom in Nicaragua”, Chamorro said, “media outlets are under police siege, journalists are attacked, censorship is rampant, and there is no free access to public information. Journalists cannot even attend any press conference held by public authorities.”

“If a journalist is out on the streets covering an event, at any moment he can be subjected to aggression”, Chamorro concluded.