Nicaragua’s Press Censorship is “Physical, Legal and Symbolic”

declares OAS rapporteur Pedro Vaca

Pedro Vaca, IACHR Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. Photo: Rapporteur’s Office, Inter-American Commission for Human Rights

Pedro Vaca: “The situation is critical. A high dose of courage is needed to engage in journalism, but there’s a great capacity for resilience.”

By Cindy Regidor (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Sophisticated government censorship is becoming the norm in Nicaragua. In the face of this, Pedro Vaca recognizes the social commitment and heroism of Nicaraguan journalists. Vaca is the IACHR [Inter-American Commission for Human Rights] Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. He’s well aware of the difficulties reporters face, within a socio-political and human rights crisis now in its third year.

“To be a journalist in Nicaragua at this time requires a high dose of courage. Journalists face constant fear and anxiety. Nicaragua is one of the countries where the government makes the greatest efforts to propagate this fear. They want it to grow and generate self-censorship.” Pedro Vaca expressed these ideas during an interview on the Nicaraguan internet news program Esta Semana. He spoke on the occasion of National Journalists’ Day, which Nicaragua celebrates on March 1st.

Vaca noted with concern that censorship in Nicaragua is being consolidated and becoming the norm. This, he stated, is occurring in a society where there’s no Rule of Law. He explained that the government enforces their censorship physically, legally and symbolically.

The panorama of censorship includes the confiscations of the news installations belonging to Confidencial and 100% Noticias. It also includes repressive laws, the shuttering of non-profit organizations, trials of journalists, and ransacking the homes of media outlet owners. These are all part of the police state the current government imposes since September 2018.

The Special Rapporteur agreed with the conclusion of many local and international human rights organizations. In Nicaragua. there’s crisis of human rights and constant violations of public freedoms. He views the official narrative – denying all accusations and insisting everything in the country is normal – as “bordering on delirium”.

The IACHR official reiterated the organization’s willingness to visit Nicaragua. He echoed the offer of Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to accompany a resolution of the crisis. However, Vaca stated, “The Nicaraguan government has closed the door.”

The OAS Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression permanently monitors freedom of expression all over the continent. What’s your view of the confiscations in Nicaragua of two independent media installations: Confidencial and 100% Noticias?

Pedro Vaca: It’s an arbitrary usurpation, and it’s continued for an extended time. I think you have to look at it through two different lenses. First, as a reflection of the absence of the Rule of Law. We’re talking about a unilateral decision of the Executive branch to carry out an arbitrary seizure.

If the institutions had acted as counterweights, the Judicial Branch would have at least considered the legal basis, which is lacking. Instead, what we have is a de facto seizure, a confiscation that reflects the deterioration of the Rule of Law.

The second lens is that in Nicaragua the government is unveiling a sophisticated gamut of censorship techniques. Physical and police actions, and seeding fear through legal sanctions aren’t enough. The government is also interested in censorship on a symbolic level. [They want] everyone to realize that they intentionally caused certain voices to stop operating. The scheme been effective, at least for those buildings. But, in the end, it’s been left absolutely sterile, because we’re seeing that journalism hasn’t stopped.

What repercussions does this State-implemented closure of media installations have, especially in an election year for Nicaragua?

Pedro Vaca: The democratic equation is based on several conditions. One of the most fundamental is the protection of press freedom. I’m speaking of the diversity and plurality of voices, not just those that coincide with the government in power. We must especially protect those that are critical of how the state is functioning.

What we have [in Nicaragua] is a rejection of controversy. There’s a desire to be immune to criticism on any contradictory institutional decisions. This has even reached the level of creating laws, just in case they need further instruments to suffocate public debate.

This has an impact in Nicaraguans’ daily lives. What’s at play is society’s right to be informed, to hear different points of view.

These restrictions are accentuated in a pre-electoral context. The limitations on sharing ideas can result in very reduced information for Nicaraguans who go to the polls. They have limited information for making decisions about their future.

Recently there were two cases where journalists were tried and declared guilty of supposed slander. First, Kalua Salazar of the radio station La Costeñisima was accused, and a few weeks later David Quintana of Boletin Ecologico.  What are your thoughts about these trials against journalists in Nicaragua?

Pedro Vaca: I refer back to what I said about the erosion of the Rule of Law. You can draw a parallel. When the media properties were usurped, the Judicial Power was invoked, but never analyzed the confiscation. Conversely, it acted very quickly when it was a matter of imposing sanctions on dissident voices.

The Cybercrimes Law now in effect in Nicaragua establishes the crime of propagating fake news. It’s punishable with two to four years in prison. How can civil society and the population in general protect their right to freedom of expression?

Pedro Vaca: Together with four other United Nations rapporteurs, we’ve registered our concerns about the Cybercrimes Law and the Foreign Agents’ Law. These laws don’t pass international tests for legality, proportionality, legitimate aims or necessity. As such, they’re incompatible with international human rights standards.

What we have here, again, is a deployment of institutional power. If an instrument is lacking, it’s then created. Again, the erosion of the Rule of Law. It appears that the Parliament is emitting laws without much debate. These then enter directly in force, to limit the guarantees of civil and political freedoms.

I fear that these could enter into a process of normalization.  Censorship isn’t normal. Censorship isn’t compatible with democratic regimes, and it’s absolutely incompatible with what the OAS countries have committed themselves to constructing.

These Nicaraguan laws appear to be related to the model of legislative repression used in Cuba and Venezuela. Do you see a similar pattern in these laws?

Pedro Vaca:  There’s a pattern of disregard for what’s known internationally as freedom of expression.

If you take a look at the parliamentary activities of different countries in the region, of course, there’s discussion. They’re talking about freedom of expression on the internet, freedom of expression for public functionaries.  But as far as sanctioning infringement with jail time – that’s something that has frankly been unique to certain countries. It’s reserved for places where we find spaces for public debate more closed, especially the countries you mentioned.

The Cuban Constitution proposes a view of freedom of expression that’s not democratic or plural. Venezuela last year passed an anti-blockade law that (…) legalizes hiding information. It’s framed as a means of protection from the blockade measures imposed against the country. So, certainly, we’re talking about laws inspired in the most regressive examples.

There appears to be an inclination to adopt the severest, most arbitrary measures. Above all, measures that don’t allow for pluralism. Democracy (…) can only be exercised without fear of reprisals against anyone, and that’s what’s at risk.

Another case in Nicaragua was that of Anibal Toruño, the director of Radio Dario. His home has been illegally searched three times by the police. Anibal is under IACHR protective measures. Have you had any contact with him?

Pedro Vaca: I saw him recently, and we had the opportunity for a long conversation. There are several such cases in Nicaragua. They reflect the three layers of censorship that we’ve identified. There’s physical censorship – breaking doors, invading your private spaces. There’s legal censorship, leading to uncertainty about what could happen. Clearly, Anibal is afraid to return to Nicaragua; anyone in his situation would feel that way.

There’s also symbolic violence. No one wants the doors to their home to be broken down. People who see it, who know that he has a radio station, (…) make a connection between journalism and this violence. In my judgement, this relationship is absolutely clear, and it’s another tool in the sophisticated censorship we’ve identified in Nicaragua.

How does Nicaragua compare with the rest of the countries you observe?

Pedro Vaca: The word I’d use for the situation there is “critical”. It would be extremely difficult to think that all the evaluations [of international organizations] could be mistaken. There are reports from the UN, and through the monitoring of the Special Follow-up Mechanism on Nicaragua of the IACHR. Also, a great many national and international organizations have provided a lot of documentation on Nicaragua.

The IACHR has rigorously collected information for several years. We’ve done this constantly, using highly professional criteria. It all points to the conclusion that there’s a crisis in human rights and violation of civil liberties.

From the other side, we encounter a narrative that, in my judgement, borders on delirium. Delirium, if it only affects a person in their home, doesn’t have much impact. But we’re speaking about an outrageous narrative that’s impacting the lives of millions of Nicaraguans.

What should be our role? First, to protect Nicaraguan civil society, the Nicaraguan press. Despite all the adversity, journalists continue making an important effort. However, that could end. There could be burnout. Many journalists could find it easier to cover other issues, or enter into advertising work. They could find this preferable to continuing to bear the personal, social, and career costs that independent journalism requires.

Secondly, I repeat here the invitation recently reiterated by the UN High Commissioner. The Nicaraguan government still has an opportunity to be accompanied by international human rights organizations.

The third role that the office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression can play is to encourage a regional dialogue. Otherwise, other countries in the region could see that there’re no consequences for exercising that [repressive] model. They may think, “Why not implement it as well?”

How would you classify the level of danger for journalists in Nicaragua?

Pedro Vaca: To be a journalist in Nicaragua at this time requires a high dose of courage. It’s not an easy job. I believe they face constant fear and anxiety.

Nicaragua is one of the countries where the government makes the greatest effort to generate that fear. They want it to grow, and to result in self-censorship.

Yet, even the media outlets that the State closed continue producing journalism. How do you view the quality of Nicaraguan journalism?

Pedro Vaca:  Latin American journalism in general – including Nicaragua, of course – has an enormous capacity for resilience. The journalists are men and women with a very high social commitment. Despite the adversity, and with very limited resources, they transmit contents that help citizens make decisions for the future. That’s why it’s so important to have this conversation in a pre-electoral period. So that these guarantees for civil liberties can be demanded.

Do the Rapporteur, the IACHR, and the OAS have any ability to influence the Nicaraguan government, to put the brakes on these censorship policies?

Pedro Vaca: We’ve worked to analyze the situation, at a legal level and by monitoring what’s happening. Our willingness to visit and see the situation on the ground has been a constant refrain. However, there must be a desire to have this accompaniment, and regrettably, that’s lacking at this time.

Do the governments represented in the OAS have any voice in the crisis? Is this a political issue, or one of press freedom?

Pedro Vaca: The organization has different teams. We’re responsible for monitoring, evaluating, and making recommendations about human rights.

The information is available, and the recommendations are public. The area in which there could hopefully be some advance would be that of political dialogue. However, that’s not our area.

Our willingness to offer technical support in human rights is there, but the Nicaraguan government has closed its doors, even to the IACHR.

I hope that they reconsider that stubbornness sooner rather than later. What’s at stake, at the center of the conversation, are the human rights of all Nicaraguans.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times.

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