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As democracy is pushed to the limit in Nicaragua, civil society organisations undertake mission to UN in attempt to reverse the situation

Nicaraguans protest the arrest of journalists Miguel Mora and Lucia Pineda in Nicaragua, during a demonstration outside the Nicaraguan embassy in San Jose, Costa Rica, 22 December 2018
Nicaraguans protest the arrest of journalists Miguel Mora and Lucia Pineda in Nicaragua, during a demonstration outside the Nicaraguan embassy in San Jose, Costa Rica, 22 December 2018

EZEQUIEL BECERRA/AFP/Getty Images

This is a translation of the original article.

Arbitrary detentions, physical and verbal repression, threats, closures of facilities, thefts of equipment and even ostensible kidnappings… Daniel Ortega's regime has made use of all of these measures to sow terror and stifle free thought in Nicaragua, a country experiencing challenging times for its democratic systems, with violations of a range of human rights.

The following is only a summary of the immense risks and difficulties experienced daily by Nicaraguans who dare to express themselves in a manner that fails to meet the government's expectations, or who attempt to meet or associate with others in ways that garner the government's disapproval.

Ortega and his repressive regime constantly target media outlets and journalists in an attempt to eliminate both the free press and demonstrators who are critical of the government.

Within this context, the IFEX-ALC network, which brings together freedom of expression and press freedom defenders from 15 Latin American and Caribbean countries, along with the Asociación Mundial de Radios Comunitarias (World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, AMARC-ALC) and the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), will undertake a mission to the United Nations in Geneva to provide information within the framework of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Nicaragua scheduled to take place on 15 May 2019.

The UPR consists of an exhaustive human rights review process that every United Nations member state must undergo every five years, and within which civil society plays a crucial role. As such, the joint IFEX-ALC, AMARC-ALC and IAPA delegation will meet with officials from the member states to ensure that the concerns regarding freedom of expression that have been brought forward by Nicaraguan journalists and activists are reflected within the discussions.

This is not the first time that IFEX-ALC has taken action regarding the Nicaraguan situation. In July 2018, the network issued a statement condemning the threats, attacks, harassment and censorship activities being perpetrated against journalists and media outlets in the country, as well as the brutally repressive actions undertaken against demonstrators who took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with Ortega's government.

Then, in December, IFEX-ALC condemned the worsening situation in the country and the way in which the government had further closed civil society spaces.

Since 18 April 2018, when protests against Ortega's government began, Nicaraguans' abilities to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and access to public information have seriously deteriorated. At least 325 people have been killed, and hundreds more have been injured or detained as a result of the repressive actions undertaken against demonstrators by state agents and individuals with links to the government.


Magical realism

Exiled journalists, the criminalisation of demonstrations, underhanded censorship measures… this is a situation that, for some, surpasses literary magical realism in its level of absurdity, which in spite of everything is hardly surprising. This is how Edison Lanza, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights' (IACHR) Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, described the situation in a 25 March 2019 tweet after moves were made to stop delivery of ink that had been imported for printing of the La Prensa local daily. The strategy failed to limit publication of the newspaper as it arrived on the streets the same day printed with blue ink, as can be seen in the image with the headline, "Se nos agota la tinta, pero no las noticias" (We are out of ink, but the news continues).

Wendy Quintero Chávez

On the other hand, the list of journalists who have found themselves forced to leave Nicaragua for fear of government reprisals keeps increasing. One of those journalists is Wendy Quintero Chávez, who is not only a journalist but also vice-president of the AMARC-ALC women's network. Quintero will represent her network in the delegation to Geneva. She expressed "deep pain" over having to leave Nicaragua and seeing her fellow citizens' dwindling freedoms.

In addition to her other roles, Quintero is also a member of the Periodistas y Comunicadores Independientes de Nicaragua (Nicaraguan Independent Journalists and Commentators, PCIN) network. According to the journalist, the PCIN emerged as a result of the "constant violations and attacks experienced by the media and journalists in Nicaragua."

"By way of this new organisation, we determined that there are between 66 and 70 journalists who were forced into exile after the events of 18 April 2018. I [as a member of this group] had to leave from one day to the next as I was told that I was on a list of journalists wanted by the police," she added.

For Quintero, another serious problem afflicting the country is the criminalisation of peaceful demonstrations, a political move that has given rise to the persecution of civil society actors and those who defend them. "Demonstrating in a peaceful manner is a right. [We] always support various organisations [that are defending human rights]. In this case, we have supported parents of political prisoners. This contributed to the creation of an increasing siege mentality toward us."

Quintero also commented on the difficult situation of several of the exiled journalists. Her own situation illustrates some of the problems experienced by her colleagues since upon leaving Nicaragua she was also forced to leave her work and family.

Quintero highlighted the importance of recognising that the repression has been increasing ever since Ortega took power in 2007, it did not just begin suddenly in April 2018 with the demonstrations against the government and the brutal response against protestors.

The figures from 2018, however, stand out for their degree of force. In this regard, Quintero noted the findings revealed in a report by the Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos (Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights, CENIDH): "More than 300 people died last year and more than 2,000 were injured. Today there are 802 political prisoners… jailed solely for having participated in the social protests."


All terrorists

"For this government, Nicaragua is the country in the world with the most terrorists. It is laughable. They created a law to charge and condemn the demonstrators. The hundreds of political prisoners in the country today are all being accused of terrorism," Quintero said.

"Several university communications students who participated in the initial protests are being held in detention illegally. We are saying [they have been] kidnapped. Some of them were freed, but others, like Edwin Carcache, one of the most visible faces of the movement, have been imprisoned. This week we found out about the case of Marlon Powell Sanchez, who was persecuted and detained on 7 March in Managua," she added.

Quintero noted that the government has also attempted to "incriminate several journalists." She highlighted the findings of the Violeta Barros de Chamorro Foundation, which revealed that "in the first 180 days of the crisis at least 420 cases of press freedom violations were documented. Arbitrary detentions, constant police sieges of media outlets, raids on facilities, out-of-order requisitioning of journalists and their equipment, surveillance and monitoring of the homes of journalists" are among the forms of intimidation being used against the media.

"This shows the Machiavellian way in which they work and how crude their ways are as well, because they used to attempt to hide it but now they are up front about it. You cannot say you are a journalist, you cannot show your identification, because upon doing so you will become a target for the police and para-police groups," she added.

"The outlook is worsening. Many colleagues continue to go into exile and those who stay are very afraid," Quintero said. For Quintero and many other human rights defenders "rule of law no longer exists" in Nicaragua.


Unending violations of democratic principles

Guillermo Medrano coordinates the Violeta Barros de Chamorro Foundation's Periodismo con Enfoque de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Focused Journalism) project in Nicaragua. Medrano is also the IAPA delegate for the mission to Geneva, and he spoke with IFEX about the long-range human rights crisis that is taking place and has been taking place for years in Nicaragua.

"There has been a constant crisis of human rights violations in Nicaragua for more than a decade. This situation has worsened with the socio-political events that have been taking place since April 2018."

The last UPR of Nicaragua took place in 2014, but, according to Medrano, since that time the country "has suffered an obvious setback in freedom of expression, which is the cornerstone of public freedoms. This is demonstrated by the high concentration of ownership and control over the media exerted by the Ortega-Murillo family and individuals with ties to the government. It is also evident in the resurgence of bullying, harassment [of media outlets and journalists], and also in defamation campaigns against the independent media."

Similar to Quintero, Medrano pointed out that the repression perpetrated by the Ortega administration did not begin in 2018, but he denotes 18 April of that year as a turning point, particularly because "the government responded with a level of violence never before seen in the history of Nicaragua, not even during the Somoza dictatorship."

In addition to the deceased and imprisoned citizens and students mentioned previously, Medrano also highlighted the assassination of journalist Ángel Gahona, who was killed while covering a demonstration. He further mentioned journalists Miguel Mora and Lucía Pineda, the director and head of information respectively for the 100% Noticias news channel, who have been jailed by the Ortega government.

"In recent years, the government approved laws that violate fundamental rights, criminalizing social protest and the freedom to organise and mobilise," he said.


International sanctions

For Medrano, the delegation to Geneva is very important: "The only thing that Ortega dreads is international economic sanctions, fearing they would not allow him to continue his illicit wealth accumulation by taking advantage of his power."

"As such, it is a matter of urgency that international organisations and cooperation agencies understand the real situation being experienced by Nicaraguans," he added.

"Ortega presides over a government that is completely coercive and authoritarian, controlling all the powers of the State. It is a government that violates the Constitution, as well as all rights to expression and human rights. There has been no separation of powers in Nicaragua since 2007. We are facing a failed State," Medrano said.

He also noted that it is important for the "UN Human Rights Council to know the human rights reality being experienced by Nicaraguans, via the UPR mechanism, in its fourth cycle of evaluations."

Marianela Balbi, president of IFEX-ALC's Coordinating Committee, agreed with these thoughts and told IFEX that "as a result of the protests in Nicaragua a very repressive facet of Daniel Ortega's government has been revealed. While it is true that Ortega never had a good relationship with the press, as it was typified by opaqueness and repression, recent events have truly demonstrated his anti-democratic and repressive behaviours."

"It is very important that the States and delegations to the UN understand the situation in the country and direct specific requests to the Nicaraguan government regarding freedom of expression. This is a commitment that should be undertaken," Balbi noted. She further stated that this is the reason "this is mission is so important."

PCIN member Patricia Orozco, "The government talks about a peaceful solution to the crisis, via dialogue and negotiation, but we do not see political will to move in that direction. Instead they have imposed a 'state of exception'. Because of this, investigative journalism continues to be needed more than ever in Nicaragua. Independent journalism is the final frontier for freedom of expression in the country."

"International pressure is very important in getting the Nicaraguan dictatorship to take the situation seriously and truly seek a democratic and peaceful solution to the crisis. In the case of international human rights organisations, it is of vital importance that they continue accompanying the process such that their reports widely disseminate and reflect the reality of the situation being experienced in Nicaragua," she added.


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