On March 1, the Day of the Journalist in Nicaragua, 470 journalists from around the world signed a letter to demand the implementation of urgent measures to guarantee freedom of expression.
The document, which was symbolically given to journalists during an online event, condemned the attacks of the regime led by President Daniel Ortega and Vice-President Rosario Murillo against independent media and journalists. It also listed some of the attacks since the political crisis began in 2018, during which reporters were injured and killed while covering demonstrations against government policies.
As presidential elections are due in November, the letter underscored the importance of independent journalism in ensuring a free and transparent democratic process.
A long struggle
“On April 18, three years will have passed since the brutal and violent repression of the anti-government protests by the Daniel Ortega regime”, Lucia Pineda, journalist and director of news channel 100% Noticias, told the International Press Institute (IPI). “Three years of impunity, injustice, censorship, and exile for many colleagues who have had to leave Nicaragua to protect their lives”.
The discontent against the 11-year-long rule of Daniel Ortega was triggered by a reform implemented by the government to avoid the bankruptcy of the social security program. The reform increased the monetary contributions of workers and imposed a 5 percent tax on retirees, lowering their pensions.
“Since the crisis began, Nicaragua is experiencing one of the worst times for independent journalism”, Julio López, a journalist for Onda Local and member of the group Independent Journalists and Communicators of Nicaragua (PCIN), told IPI. “According to watchdog organizations, more than a thousand attacks on independent journalism have been registered since 2018. The incidents include persecution, espionage, physical aggression, theft of equipment, confiscation of equipment and the seizing of media houses’ property”.
One of the most alarming cases was that of journalist Miguel Ángel Gahona, who was shot in April 2018 while filming riots. Later that year, police officers raided and seized the offices of the investigative news portal Confidencial. A few days later, the director of 100% Noticias, Miguel Mora, and journalist Lucia Pineda were arrested.
“The police raided the premises on the night of December 21, 2018, and took us to a prison where we received cruel treatment, as well as physical and psychological torture”, Pineda said. “In addition, we were subjected to a prison regime of complete isolation.”
The offices of 100% Noticias were also seized and have been recently transformed, together with the premises of Confidencial, into community service centers by the government.
“The illegal handover of the offices to the Ministry of Health shows that the attack on public liberties continues, bringing legal uncertainty in the country where confiscation of property is prohibited”, Pineda said. “This is a message to every citizen and every journalist that if they defy the regime by reporting the truth, their homes can be taken away and converted into a health center.”
Journalists in the country face prosecution, surveillance, harassment and threats, and run the risk of being framed and charged with crimes, such as drug trafficking. “The regime sees reporting in Nicaragua as a ‘crime’”, Pineda said. “Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo consider those independent journalists, who do not align themselves with their official policy, the ‘enemy’”.
Since 2018, around 70 journalists have also been forced to go into exile and continue their professional activities abroad due to the repeated threats and aggressions against them, said López.
Access to information worsened with the pandemic
During the COVID-19 crisis, the Nicaraguan government tightened controls on freedom of expression even more.
“We have limited access to information concerning the pandemic since it is handled in absolute secrecy by the regime”, López said.
Pineda agreed and said that the high levels of misinformation have made it difficult for independent journalists to do their jobs. She also suggested that the truth could not be hidden because the demand for burials and coffins has spiraled.
To tackle the repression against independent reporting and fill the information void created by the health crisis, an independent online site called Observatorio Ciudadano was founded in March 2020 to track the COVID-19 cases in the country. The government’s “official” data often doesn’t correspond with the information reported on the website.
The creation of online journalistic platforms has been a common strategy of Nicaraguan journalists to continue exercising their rights of freedom of expression and informing the public since the crisis, López said.
“At least 20 platforms that were originally censored had to resort to the internet to continue performing their professional duties”, López added. “It has the advantage that it is cheaper to maintain, but it comes with certain limitations as well. These platforms have few resources and often miss happenings in certain areas because they do not have an internet connection. Despite these challenges, media professionals continue to uphold their commitment to inform the public.”
The lack of protection for journalists and the hostile environment against media workers in the country has also impacted the health care of those media professionals infected with COVID-19.
“We have registered more than 60 cases of journalists being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic,” López said. “These cases were all diagnosed with x-rays reports and by self-identifying the most common symptoms of COVID-19 because tests are only administered by the Nicaraguan Health Ministry in public hospitals and journalists do not want to go to public hospitals for fear of the repressive environment against the media in the country. Most of them had to recover at home since the alternative, private care, is too expensive”.
Many journalists have had to have home treatments while others created fundraising campaigns to pay for hospitals, Pineda asserted.
The government has also used the pandemic as an excuse to implement laws that further restrict the free flow of information.
“The regime passed two laws, the cybercrime law, or ‘gag law’, and the law on foreign agents, which hit independent journalism and civil society organizations”, said Pineda. “These laws are part of the strategy to silence journalism and intimidate sources”.
As a response to a leak of official information from the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health that proved that the government had been lying about the number of infections active in the country, the government issued a “Special Cybersecurity Law” on October 27, 2020. The regulation established a prison sentence for those people and entities that the government consider to have spread “false news” on social media networks or the media.
“The main concern with the Cybersecurity Law is the margin of discretion that the regime has in place to interpret and determine what is fake news”, López explained. “It constitutes manipulation and undermines the possibility for journalists to report freely”.
This law became part of a package of decrees promoted by Daniel Ortega’s government to control its political adversaries. The set of repressive laws also includes the “Foreign Agents Law”, enacted on October 15, 2020. The regulation requires individuals and organizations receiving donations from foreign countries to notify the government and disclose how the money is spent.
“The Foreign Agents Law has had a huge impact in Nicaragua because some media, unable to receive state and private advertising revenue, have resorted to international support as a means of subsistence, but when they are unable to receive funds due to this law imposed by the regime, many media houses are forced to reduce staff or close down”, López added.
Recently, this regulation was used to close down two civil organizations, Fundación Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and the Nicaraguan chapter of PEN, which have played a crucial role in strengthening freedom of expression and information, Pineda said.
On November 7, Nicaragua will hold presidential and legislative elections, as well as elections to the Central American Parliament. Journalists fear the upcoming poll might increase attacks on them.
“We have already seen repression in this electoral context”, López told IPI. “When we are covering the activities of presidential candidates of the opposition, the police conduct searches, persecutions, and reviews the equipment and notes of the journalists attempting to report on these activities.”
These searches are part of a strategy to intimidate, silence, and frighten journalists, Pineda said.
Elections have proven to be risky beats in the past for Nicaraguan journalists. During the 2004 elections, María José Bravo was shot dead by a former mayor while covering voting procedures.
López confirmed that this year the risks for journalists reporting on the electoral processes are very high. There is also increased skepticism about the fairness and transparency of the vote.
What lies ahead?
According to López, the future of freedom of expression could develop along two different paths. In the first, the regime of Daniel Ortega stays in power and the repressive environment for independent media continues or worsens. In the second one, there is a change of government and a possibility of reestablishing press freedom.
“The best scenario is definitely without Ortega”, López said, “because we believe that in the second scenario there can be a greater chance to demand three basic things: freedom of the press, access to information, and the use of state advertising freely”.
The opposition presidential candidates include Miguel Mora, director of 100% Noticias, who has promised freedom of press and information if elected president. Cristiana Chamorro, vice-president of newspaper La Prensa, is also a candidate.
“We hope that with a change and a democratic government, free expression and freedom of the press will be respected in Nicaragua”, said Pineda. “When a media outlet is closed or a journalist is imprisoned, society is also attacked and the right to be informed is denied. We trust in God that Nicaragua will be free and we will regain freedom. No dictatorship is sustained, dictatorships pass, the people and journalists remain.”