16 October 2008


Political and judicial harassment of NGOs threatens freedom of expression, says RSF

Incident details

Carlos Fernando Chamorro, Sofía Montenegro

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(RSF/IFEX) - RSF strongly condemns a newly-launched interior ministry investigation into 17 non-governmental organisations for alleged "embezzlement" and "money-laundering" and fears it could jeopardize the right to inform and freedom of association, two basic constitutional rights.

The probe is focused above all on the Centre for Investigation and Communication (Centro de Investigación de la Comunicación, CINCO), headed by journalist and video programme maker Carlos Fernando Chamorro, and the Autonomous Women's Movement (Movimiento Autónomo de Mujeres, MAM), headed by journalist Sofía Montenegro, who have been the target of a smear campaign by close allies of President Daniel Ortega.

They have already been questioned by the prosecutor's office, which threatened to jail them on 8 October 2008 if they do not respond to further summonses for questioning.

"The administrative and judicial harassment of CINCO and MAM is an outrage," RSF said. "Aside from the fact that the courts are being used to settle political scores, the very principle of this investigation - which is mainly targeted at NGOs dedicated to communication, human rights and women's rights - poses a threat to the role of civil society as an arena for democratic debate. These proceedings come in the wake of what some have called a 'black campaign', a campaign to smear the reputations of Montenegro and Chamorro, two former members of the Sandinista movement, by means of degrading accusations that are without foundation. Such polarisation and 'media war' methods - which are being seen in other Latin American countries as well - pose a major threat to the physical safety of those publicly singled out as enemies of the nation."

The press freedom organisation added, "President Ortega, who is the guarantor of constitutional rights, must put an end to this campaign and to its consequences in the administrative and judicial domains."

Chamorro was previously the target of a campaign of personal attacks after he accused the leadership of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) of involvement in a case of extortion in June 2007. No action was taken on his allegations.

"At the time, my photo was being shown every day on Canal 4, the pro-government television station, where I was branded as a gangster, a terrorist, a drug trafficker or a killer of peasants," Chamorro told RSF. "But the courts acknowledged at the time that I had not done anything wrong. The same television methods resumed in May 2008 and have continued until now, this time with me being labelled as a CIA agent and agent of imperialism in allusion to the fact that CINCO received US$20,000 from USAID this year, which is barely 1 per cent of our budget."

In September 2008, the First Lady, Rosario Murillo, publicly accused CINCO, MAM and Oxfam-UK - which supervises a cooperation accord with CINCO and MAM - of "hatching a plan to destabilise the government." It was immediately thereafter that the interior ministry launched its probe into CINCO and MAM and 15 other Nicaraguan NGOs.

Chamorro became the first person to appear before a prosecutor as part of the investigation on 2 October, when he was questioned for five hours. Montenegro and three other women, Juanita Jiménez, Patricia Orozco and Ana Maria Pizarro, were questioned on 7 and 8 October.

These women were already the target of a prosecution that was brought shortly after President Ortega's January 2007 inauguration against some 10 leading members of women's rights organisations who had been speaking out publicly since the previous year against the repeal of a law allowing abortion on medical grounds.

The interior ministry website claims that the 17 NGOs lack legal status because they are not formally registered as NGOs with the ministry. Officially, the embezzlement and money-laundering suspicions stem from some 58 financial accords - in some cases worth more than 400,000 dollars - with other NGOs that are registered. The registered NGOs have already been fined and could now lose their legal status.

The requests for an explanation which RSF has addressed to the authorities, including Interior Minister Isabel Morales Mazún, have so far not received a reply.

The legal statuses of two opposition parties, the left-wing Movement for Sandinista Renewal (Movimiento de la Renovación Sandinista) and the right-wing Conservative Party (Partido Conservador), were rescinded in May 2008. "It was amid this very great political and media tension that the 'black campaign' resumed," Chamorro said. "Against me but also against other well-known people such as Sofía Montenegro, because she is campaigning for the decriminalisation of abortion."

Chamorro continued, "The president's wife, Rosario Murillo, said especially derogatory things about Sofía Montenegro in the weekly 'El 19', accusing her, for example, of being a murderer because she is the sister of a National Guard officer who was a recognised torturer during the Anastasio Somoza dictatorship. Yet Montenegro used to be an active member of the FSLN!"

Since those comments by the First Lady, Montenegro has been the target of many threats and attempts to intimidate her.

Chamorro added, "Aside from the proceedings initiated against us, the government is planning a major overhaul of the international cooperation law with the aim of limiting the approximately 4,500 NGOs to a basic assistance role."


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