Nicaragua: Ortega Tightening Authoritarian Grip

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Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega speaks next to first lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo during the inauguration ceremony for a highway overpass in Managua, Nicaragua, Thursday, March 21, 2019.
© 2019 AP Photo/Alfredo Zuniga

(Washington, DC, October 8, 2020) – Member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) should urgently raise concerns about Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s efforts to tighten his government’s grip on independent journalists and human rights groups, Human Rights Watch said today.

On September 22, 2020, pro-government lawmakers introduced a “foreign agents” bill that would allow Ortega’s government to exert control over the work of virtually anyone who receives funding or support from abroad, including rights groups and independent media outlets. On September 28, pro-government lawmakers introduced a “cybercrime” bill, criminalizing the spread of “fake news” and other speech on the Internet, which could be used to censor and punish free expression.

“These bills appear designed to provide legal cover for the Ortega government to harass and prosecute journalists, rights groups, and virtually anyone who criticizes his government,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “OAS member states should not stay silent as Ortega tightens his grip on critical voices in the country.” 

The “foreign agents” bill requires people or entities to register as “foreign agents” with the Interior Ministry if they “directly or indirectly” receive funding from abroad. People and entities must also register if they work under the “instructions, supervision or control” of people who answer to foreign “governments, capital, businesses, or funds” or if they represent the “interests” of foreign “governments, foundations, businesses, or organisms.” Those failing to register could face fines, the cancellation of the entity’s official registration in Nicaragua, and confiscation of their property.

Under the bill, those registered as “foreign agents” can face undefined “legal sanctions” if they intervene in “issues, activities or matters of internal politics.” The bill would also forbid the individuals registered as “foreign agents” from running for public office until a year after they have withdrawn their registration and the government has verified that they are not receiving foreign funding.

Human Rights Watch has documented how other countries, such as Russia, have used similar “foreign agents” laws to silence civil society. The European Parliament has condemned Russia’s law – which is the subject of multiple challenges before the European Court of Human Rights – as a tool to stifle dissent, and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights has made clear it violates international norms.

The “cybercrime bill” includes several broad provisions that are particularly threatening to media freedom. It would establish criminal sentences of up to four years in prison for anyone who uses communications technology to “publish” or “disseminate” “false or distorted information, likely to spread anxiety, anguish or fear.” It would also punish with up to five years in prison anyone who publishes “false or distorted information” that “promotes hate and violence, [or] endangers economic stability, public order or health, or national security,” terms that are not defined under the bill.

The bill would punish with prison time the use of communications technology to disclose classified information as well as information considered “personal.” It would also punish with prison sentences of three to five years anyone who uses technology to “praise” crimes or people who have committed crimes, and with two to four years anyone who uses technology to threaten to harm someone’s reputation or to divulge “secrets” that could harm someone.

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR), both ratified by Nicaragua, laws may only limit the rights to free speech and freedom of association when necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate goal, such as the protection of national security or the rights of others. The proposed bills include multiple overbroad provisions that are inconsistent with international human rights law and could be easily used to target critics and the media, Human Rights Watch said. 

In addition to the “foreign agents” and “cybercrimes” bills, on September 15, Vice President Rosario Murillo, President Ortega’s wife, said that the government would propose a constitutional amendment to allow life sentences for “hate crimes.” Nicaraguan law does not address “hate crimes,” although the government has often accused critics and political opponents of committing them.

The government first mentioned the idea of a “hate crimes” amendment in connection with the murder of two girls, ages 10 and 12, in the Mulukukú municipality in September. In a speech discussing the cases, Ortega suggested that political opponents and protesters “wanted to continue murdering, using bombs, causing destruction,” although his government has shared no evidence linking them to these specific crimes.

Given the Nicaraguan government’s record of targeting journalists and opponents, its rhetoric about a “hate crimes” amendment seems like yet another effort to intimidate critics, Human Rights Watch said.

In 2018, a brutal crackdown on protesters by Nicaragua’s National Police and armed pro-government groups left over 300 people dead and 2,000 injured and resulted in hundreds of arbitrary arrests and prosecutions. The government stripped 10 nongovernmental organizations of their legal registration, forcing them to close, and harassed and detained journalists.

On September 14, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that about 94 people “perceived as opponents to the government” remained in prison. Serious human rights violations, including torture and extrajudicial killings, committed during the 2018 crackdown have gone unpunished.

“Despite the government’s brutal crackdown and the hostile environment they face, many media outlets and rights groups continue to expose abuses by the Ortega administration,” Vivanco said. “But Ortega’s new legislative initiatives could end up suffocating the work of civil society and journalists in Nicaragua.”