Threats to Watch Ahead of Nicaragua’s Presidential Elections

Flagrant press freedom violations

A child in Managua sells T-shirts promoting Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega for reelection on November 7. Ortega has rounded up opposition candidates and suppressed the media in the lead up to the vote. (AFP/Oswaldo Rivas)

By Committee for the Protection of Journalists

HAVANA TIMES – On November 7, Nicaraguans are set to go to the polls to vote for president, the culmination of a campaign that has included the detention of opposition candidates, the banning of civil society organizations, and continued suppression of the country’s independent press.

Nicaragua’s press freedom environment sharply deteriorated in 2018, when journalists covering protests against social security reform found themselves in authorities’ crosshairs, subject to intimidation, threats, judicial harassment, and arrest, as the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) documented.

Over the past year, authorities have expanded their arsenal of tactics to suppress independent reporting and target individual journalists who are covering the country’s political crisis, with new laws that criminalize false news and punish outlets receiving funding from abroad, and by imprisoning journalists and using state institutions to harass and censor the media.

With President Daniel Ortega, who has been in power for more than 14 years, taking punitive measures to win reelection, the stakes for the independent press in the country could not be higher. Below are eight press freedom threats to watch in Nicaragua as voters prepare to go to the polls.

1. Imprisonment

As Nicaraguan authorities are arresting opposition members, journalists who have covered or commented on the political unrest have found themselves put behind bars too.

Police detained journalist Miguel Mendoza on charges of conspiracy against national integrity on June 21 in Managua, as CPJ documented at the time. A sports journalist by trade, Mendoza has veered into political territory in his writing over the last few years, and has become an outspoken critic of Ortega on Twitter and Facebook, according to reports.

Juan Lorenzo Holmann, the publisher of the national daily newspaper La Prensa, was arrested on August 14 after La Prensa’s newsroom was raided, as CPJ documented at the time. He faces money laundering and customs fraud charges. He is a member of the influential Chamorro family, which owns the newspaper and includes opposition leader Cristiana Chamorro, currently under house arrest.

Miguel Mora, a former journalist turned opposition candidate, was detained on June 20 on charges of inciting foreign interference, according to a report by France 24. Mora, the founder of independent TV news station 100% Noticias, received CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2019.

Mora, Mendoza, and Holmann are all held in El Chipote prison in Managua, along with political figures who were detained this year. According to news reports, the families of the prisoners have stated publicly that they are concerned for their health and safety behind bars.

CPJ emailed the office of Vice President Rosario Murillo, which handles communications for the presidency, for comment, but did not receive a reply.

2. Newsroom raids

Nicaraguan authorities have used raids as a form of intimidation against outlets like independent news website Confidencial, which has taken a more critical line in recent years on topics like the government’s handling of the pandemic and its human rights record, according to CPJ’s review.

On May 20, police raided Confidencial‘s newsroom in Managua and detained a camera operator for six hours, CPJ documented at the time. This was the publication’s new office — its previous office was occupied by police in 2018, as CPJ documented, and was recently turned into a medical facility by authorities.

Almost three months after the recent Confidencial raid, on August 13, police raided La Prensa‘s newsroom. The day before, La Prensa’s board of directors announced they were pausing the paper’s print edition because customs authorities had repeatedly withheld imported supplies, including newsprint.

3. Police harassment and surveillance

Since the beginning of this year, riot police have maintained a consistent presence outside the home of Kalúa Salazar, editor in chief of radio and television outlet La Costeñísima in the Caribbean city of Bluefields, CPJ has documented. In April, police grabbed her by the neck and tried to take her cell phone when she tried to leave the house.

Salazar has told CPJ that she believes that authorities are harassing her in the leadup to the election in order to silence La Costeñísima, one of the few independent outlets on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast.

CPJ has also documented police parking outside of a journalist’s home and filming his behavior, and death threats against a journalist by people allegedly supportive of Ortega.

CPJ emailed the public relations department of the police but did not receive a response.

4. Judicial harassment

In late spring, prosecutors began summoning journalists and political figures to testify in relation to a criminal investigation into alleged money laundering by Cristiana Chamorro, a political candidate and a former head of a now-shuttered freedom of expression organization.

Cristopher Mendoza, a representative of the journalists’ union Periodistas y Comunicadores de Nicaragua told CPJ via phone that at least 30 journalists have been summoned in the case, with many being harshly questioned by prosecutors pressuring them to “give information about sources and other journalists’ whereabouts.”

In June, CPJ documented that one of the journalists summoned, María Lilly Delgado, a freelance correspondent for the U.S.-based television network Univision, was told by authorities during questioning that she was being investigated as part of the case. CPJ has been unable to independently confirm whether she faces charges.

CPJ called the Nicaraguan public prosecutor’s office and the courts but received no reply.

5. Administrative harassment

In addition to harassment from Nicaragua’s judiciary, journalists and media outlets have faced pressure from administrative authorities. Last year CPJ documented the tax administration authority’s pressure on independent broadcaster Nicavision Canal 12, which said the outlet owed back taxes, leading a court to seize its assets. The customs authority has repeatedly withheld imported ink and paper in recent years, hampering newspapers’ ability to publish.

In August, property administration officials seized the Managua home of Patricia Orozco, director of news website Agenda Propia, she told CPJ via phone. According to news reports, Orozco said the government gave her the home in the 1980s but has now claimed it as government property. She told CPJ that authorities are retaliating against her for her reporting on human rights, politics, and gender.

“These are state institutions at the service of the Ortega regime’s interests,” Orozco said of administrative authorities acting against journalists.

CPJ emailed inquiries to the customs authority, the tax administration authority, and the property administration authority, but received no reply.

6. Self-censorship

Mendoza, the representative of the journalists’ union, told CPJ that ahead of the elections, many media outlets have changed their programming to avoid being harassed by government officials. “There is an informative media blackout,” he told CPJ.

According to the U.S. Congress-funded Voice of America, Radio Corporación, a major radio station in the country, suspended two programs considered critical of Ortega, Onda Local and Confidencial, last month.

“Media owners are afraid their operating permits might be canceled if they present a front to the Ortega regime. That’s why they cancel some programs or transform them to have a ‘lighter’ agenda,” Mendoza said.

According to a 2021 report by La Prensa, journalists who cover sensitive topics like politics or the COVID-19 pandemic have sometimes opted to stop using bylines on their articles to prevent the government from identifying them.

7. Exile due to persecution

Mendoza estimates that 38 journalists have left Nicaragua so far in 2021 due to fear of persecution, either after being summoned by prosecutors or because of other threats. He estimated that 100 journalists left the country after the 2018 unrest, and that most exiled Nicaraguan journalists now live in Costa Rica, with others scattered throughout the United States and Spain.

One of Nicaragua’s most prominent independent journalists, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the director of Confidencial, went into exile in 2018 and returned to Nicaragua a year later, only to go back into exile in June due to increasing persecution that culminated in a raid on his home, he wrote.

In August, Nicaragua’s attorney general’s office announced criminal charges against Chamorro, adding him to the ongoing investigation against his sister, the opposition figure Cristiana Chamorro, as CPJ documented. 

8. Decreased access to public information

Under Ortega, access to public information has been severely restricted despite legal provisions, such as Law 621, which force state institutions to provide it.

Orozco and Mendoza told CPJ that independent outlets’ requests for public information are almost never fulfilled, and that government officials don’t invite independent reporters to press conferences.

A 2020 report published by the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, the now shuttered freedom of expression group formerly run by Cristiana Chamorro, called Ortega’s administration “mute,” alleging that dozens of state institutions refused to fulfill public information requests.

“The motto of [the Ortega government’s] communication strategy has been ‘uncontaminated information’ — which means they do not want any kind of criticism or thinking that differs from their own,” Orozco told CPJ.

In the upcoming election, journalists have told CPJ that they are concerned that they will be prevented from accessing polling stations and that results will only be released to state-sponsored media.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times.