Ortega Seeks New “Gag Law”, Prescribing Fines and Jail

Daniel Ortega in an official photo from April 15th, when he reappeared in public following 34 days of absence. Photo: Government sources

Ortega-allied deputies introduce the “Special Cybercrimes Law” which establishes jail time for citizens who spread “fake news”.

By Juan Carlos Bow (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – In an escalation of their fight to silence critical voices, the Ortega regime now targets the opposition and independent media. The newly proposed “Special Cybercrimes Law” establishes punishments including jail time for such figures. These sanctions can be levied on citizens that, in their view, “spread fake news” via information or communications technology. The initiative represents a clear attack on public freedoms. Experts term it a “gag law”.

The draft of the bill, defines informational and communications technologies as: “communications media and informational applications that allow the capture, production, reproduction, transmission, storage, processing, treatment and presentation of information in the form of images, voice, text or coding.”

The proposed bill was presented to the Assembly’s Secretary General on Monday, September 28th. The bill is underwritten by the 70 Sandinista deputies to the National Assembly. The Sandinista party holds an absolute majority in this legislative body.

The law establishes sanctions that vary from two to ten years in jail. According to the bill, “if there are aggravating conditions, the sentence could be increased by one-third. Furthermore, there is an accessory penalty of 200 to 600 days of fines.”

Fake News

In article 30, the legislative proposal targets “whoever publishes or spreads false or distorted information.” This is characterized as: “information that produces alarm, fear, unease in the population, or to a group or sector of it, or to a person and their family.” Such actions would carry a punishment of two to four years in prison.

The same article of the proposed law establishes an additional, and equally broad, set of infractions.  These are cases where the false news damages “the honor, prestige or reputation of a person or their family.” In these instances, the law would impose a penalty of one to three years in prison.”

Article 30 adds yet another category of severity. It speaks of information that “incites hatred and violence, [or] endangers economic stability, public order, public health or national security.” In such cases, “the imposed sentence will be three to five years in prison.”

Guillermo Rothschuh Villanueva sees the proposed legislation as “a new attempt to reduce still further the exercise of free expression.” Rothschuh, a writer and communications professor, adds that the law will gravely impact journalism. “One of the sectors most affected will once more be Nicaraguan journalism.”

Rothschuh is the former deacon of the Communications Sciences department of the Central American University. He notes that the law comes at an already critical moment. “The presentation and discussion of the proposed law (…) takes place in a critical context for those who assume positions against Comandante Ortega’s government.”

“Vague and ambiguous”

“The broadness and vagueness [of the proposed law] makes it even more dangerous. The penal sanctions should be written in a clear and concise form,” Rothschuh indicated.

Guillermo Medrano coordinates the human rights area of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation. He classified the draft bill as a “gag law” or a “muzzle law”.  He stressed the fact that it presents “definitions that allow too much discretion, very ambiguous.”

Medrano asked: “Who’s going to define what information is false and what is real? Who defines what fear is, what unease is?”

Writer and dissident Gioconda Belli likened the proposed law to “tying a noose around the neck of the word, of the freedom of cyberspace.”

Belli emphasized: “The new proposed bill is so general that it applies to EVERYONE. Laws should specify. For example: What is understood by ‘honor’? What is understood as ‘fear’? What causes information to be classified as ‘false’? Who can measure distortions, falsity?”

Rothchuh noted another risk: “Many people will be tempted to recur to this law simply because they feel offended. Sandinista militants could assume an equal attitude. During these months, they’ve shown high levels of intolerance for questioning that goes against the government.”

Can affect any citizen

Paulo Abrao, former executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, issued a public warning about the proposal.

“EYES ON THIS! The newly proposed law in Nicaragua opens the way to criminalize citizens and journalists with very vague penal definitions. For example, the use of “technologies” to spread “false or distorted information that produces alarm, fear or unease.”  Abrao made this statement on his Twitter account.

Guillermo Medrano feels that “the law has a first and last name”. “It doesn’t only harm the communications media.  According to this law, any citizen who uses the internet could be sent to jail.”

Alexa Zamora declared: “This proposed law violates the minimal freedoms of any individual, such as freedom of expression.” Zamora is a member of the Political Council of the opposition National Blue and White Unity.

Furthermore, Zamora said the initiative “criminalizes the work of independent journalism and any human rights activist who denounces the outrages.”

The proposal is one more attempt of the regime to control the social networks. In March 2018, one month before the civic protests broke out in April, there was a similar attempt. The National Assembly called for a supposed citizen consultation to design a bill controlling freedom of expression on social media.

The April Civic Rebellion definitively buried that initiative. During that rebellion, the citizens held massive gatherings, convoked over social media. They used the same media to document the repression.

Medrano commented: “This law discourages collaborative journalism. In this new day, any citizen can record or document a case of human rights violation and share it with the media.”  

Trying to block the leaks

The regime can also use the proposed legislation to attack another problem. Other articles target the leakage of documents or information from ministries or institutions. In mid-August, 2020, a group of hackers known as “Anonymous” leaked a database from the Ministry of Health. Among other things, the leak revealed that the Ministry had hidden 6,245 positive COVID-19 test results from the public.

Articles 4 and 5 of the proposed law establish sentences of one to four years in jail for such leaks. It targets citizens who use the computer to obtain information from “public, private, or mixed institutions that serve the public.” It also prohibits leaking information from: “banks, insurance, and other financial and stock exchange institutions.”

“Whoever inappropriately obtains sensitive personal information or reserved public information contained in a system that utilizes Informational and Communications Technology or in any of its components will receive five to eight years in prison.” This is specified in Article 13 of the proposed bill.

The regime also threatens state workers with five to eight years of jail if they leak any information under their custody.

Article 25 establishes additional sanctions. These are levied on whoever “without authorization or exceeding the powers conferred on them, transfers classified public information (…) [And who] through the use of this information, infringes a system or informational data, or who endangers the sovereign security of the State.”

A combo of measures

During the last three weeks, the regime announced a series of legislative changes. According to legal experts and dissidents, these will escalate the repression and persecution of citizens who question the government.

In his September 15 speech commemorating Central America’s Independence Days, Ortega set the tone for this. He announced that the government wants to see life sentences for “hate crimes”. His supporters immediately went to ministries and institutions to collect signatures backing the bill. It requests the approval of the Supreme Court and the National Assembly.

Last Tuesday, September 22, the Sandinista deputies presented the draft of another new law, the “Law to Regulate Foreign Agents”. According to experts on the Nicaraguan Constitution, this law would divide Nicaraguans into two classes. “True Nicaraguans” would be distinguished from “Foreign Agents”. In addition, the law would cancel the political rights of the latter and open the way for the confiscation of their assets. In a document on this legislative project, Reporters without Borders and PEN International denounced the effects. The law, they stated, establishes “an ever more complicated work climate for the independent press in Nicaragua.”

“You get the impression that these form part of a set of restrictive measures implemented by the government in past months,” stated Guillermo Rothschuh.

“This law (on cybercrimes) can’t be seen as something isolated. It would complement the other law [of Foreign Agents].  They all form part of a whole that can be summed up as repression and censorship,” Guillermo Medrano commented.

“Let’s not forget that over the years, Ortega has always shown himself to be an enemy of the media. We already saw that in the eighties. Now it’s more sophisticated, but it’s always equally perverse and repressive,” Rothschuh added.

Read more about the situation in Nicaragua here.