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On March 30, 2021, the Inter-American Dialogue, with support from Global Affairs Canada, hosted the online event “Freedom of Expression and Elections in Nicaragua”. The panel discussed how restrictions on freedom of the press have affected journalism in the country, and how these restrictions will impact the upcoming elections on November 7 of this year. The event featured welcome remarks from Michael Grant, assistant deputy minister for the Americas at Global Affairs Canada, Néstor Arce, director and Multimedia Producer at Divergentes, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, director at Confidencial, Kimberly León, journalist at La Costeñísima, Lucía Pineda, director and journalist at 100% Noticias, as well as moderation by Michael Camilleri, director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, and closing remarks by Pedro Vaca, special rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
Camilleri began the event by contextualizing the numerous attacks against the press and violations of freedom of expression in Nicaragua, citing reports by the IACHR and other international organizations, as well as extensive documentation from civil society groups, which document systematic repression against journalists in the country. Following the 2018 political crisis that ignited protests and violence across Nicaragua, journalists have been subject to arbitrary detention, intimidation, persecution, and spurious legal cases by government representatives and their allies, a trend that is particularly concerning considering the general elections that will take place on November 7, 2021. As Grant explained in his opening remarks, free and fair elections will not be possible without a robust independent press that can accurately inform Nicaraguan citizens. Freedom of expression is an essential condition of democracy that must be vigorously safeguarded.
Despite more than two years passing since President Ortega signed accords with the Civic Alliance to liberate political prisoners and reinstate civil liberties, Chamorro remarked that Nicaragua still lives under a police state, sharing his personal experiences of being constantly surveilled near his workplace and his home. He also cited numerous concerning events since the crisis, including the assassination of journalist Ángel Gahona, the destruction of Radio Darío, the seizure of the property of 100% Noticias and Confidencial, as well as the imprisonment of Lucía Pineda and Miguel Mora, directors of 100% Noticias. Pineda, a panelist at the event, remarked that her detention for more than 170 days was a symptom of the government’s fear of the truth and her reporting. She reiterated her commitment to inform the Nicaraguan public and her refusal to be silenced, noting that she returned to work a month after her release in June 2019.
The commitment to continue practicing journalism in a repressive environment was a recurrent theme during the event. Arce, who founded Divergentes in the midst of the pandemic and the current political context, pointed out that despite the crisis, more than twenty new media outlets, from within Nicaragua and from exile, have continued their reporting and attempts to find strategies to bypass or minimize the government’s restrictions. He explained that it is necessary for journalists to innovate and think of alternatives to bypass these restrictions, including employing more digitally-oriented reporting, building stronger social media channels, and engaging with alternative media dissemination techniques like podcasts and long-form investigative journalism.
De León, speaking on her experience as the director of a small news outlet in the Caribbean Coast region of Nicaragua, explained that she and her staff face constant fear for their lives, and are surveilled at their homes and workplace by the police. This very visible intimidation has also made it hard for her reporters to talk with sources who fear repercussions for their comments, as well as dried up funds from advertisers, putting a strain on the outlet’s finances. Chamorro explained that he made the decision to go into exile in 2019 to protect his physical integrity, and that despite Confidencial’s success even under challenging conditions, there are still no guarantees for his safety or of any of his colleagues, who opt for a “calculated and worthwhile risk” to continue reporting on the ground.
The Nicaraguan government has also resorted to legal measures to further restrict freedom of the press, including the “Special Law on Cybercrimes”, the “Law of Foreign Agents”, and the “Law in Defense of National Sovereignty”. Chamorro explained that the Law on Cybercrimes, passed in 2020, penalizes the spreading of “fake news” with three years in prison without clearly defining “fake news” and creating the potential for “de facto censorship”. The Law of Foreign Agents, according to Chamorro, “inherently criminalizes” any person or organization that receives foreign funding, registering the organization itself as a foreign agent, which automatically voids their political rights. Chamorro explained that even though these laws have not been enforced, the threat of enforcement has an “inhibiting effect” on political competition, exacerbating an already-existing culture of intimidation in the country and further entrenching Ortega’s grip on power.
Finally, the panel discussed how the international community can help journalists advance and defend democratic principles in Nicaragua. Chamorro remarked that the IACHR has played a crucial role since the crisis by monitoring reports of human rights violations as well as advocating for people being persecuted by the Ortega government. At the same time, he expressed some skepticism of the efforts by the broader international community in the past, arguing that it relies on assumptions that the Ortega government is open to change. He stressed the importance of the international media, noting that they can help report on the elections if national organizations are unable to do so. Vaca underscored the commitment of international human rights bodies, arguing that the international community has an important role by reporting on human rights violations in the country, and that despite its limitations, it can help by pushing for the protection of journalists, analyzing the impact of measures that negatively impact freedom of the press, and strengthening independent media in Nicaragua.
Three key takeaways that our panelists identified to support journalists in Nicaragua:
- Continue to exert pressure on the Ortega government, taking into account realistic constraints. As Chamorro and Vaca outlined in their closing comments, the international community can play an important role in monitoring and reporting human rights violations in general and specifically against journalists, a vital task in a media environment where these reports are often branded as fake, unfounded, or politicized. The panelists encouraged actors within the international community to focus their efforts on supporting local activists and journalists. While sanctions and condemnations can signal to other international partners that the Ortega government is not adhering to international human rights standards, one of the most effective ways to push for change is to support the people who are already doing so within the country.
- Push for innovative reporting strategies to bypass government restrictions. After radio station closures, physical headquarters seizures, and channel licenses being revoked, journalists in Nicaragua must constantly innovate to make sure their reporting is still reaching the public. As Arce, Pineda, and Chamorro pointed out, digital reach is increasing in Nicaragua, and journalists must make use of it by growing their social media channels, engaging in multimedia reporting, and reaching audiences online. All the panelists were optimistic that despite the government’s repression, the high quality of journalism in Nicaragua has remained, and that excellence in reporting should be channeled into non-traditional methods of dissemination.
- Support independent media both from exile and within Nicaragua. Aside from censorship and intimidation, independent media in Nicaragua is struggling with a lack of steady advertisers, which results in staff cutbacks and in general puts a strain on the sustainability of many of these outlets. As De León pointed out, local businesses are also subject to intimidation and fear possible reprisals from the government if they choose to place advertisements in already-persecuted outlets. Without the support of local advertisers or without any government sponsorship (one of the largest funders in the country), financial concerns put further stress on these journalists and their work. Increasing available sources of funding for these outlets can help local journalists continue their work. Similarly, while exiled journalists receive support from their news outlets in Nicaragua, they still face accommodation challenges and would benefit from an additional network of advocacy and support. As Chamorro explained, many journalists from exile have chosen not to return to Nicaragua because they cannot ensure a safe return. The international community could help identify these journalists at risk and put a magnifying glass on the Ortega government to ensure that should their safety be compromised, there are people concerned and watching.