Government expropriates civil society and media facilities

Government expropriates civil society and media facilities
High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet at opening of 46th session of the UN HRC. UN photo by Violaine Martin.

During the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights presented a report on Nicaragua saying that, when attempting to express their political opinions and defend human rights, people in the country are subjected to “constant, illegitimate and serious restrictions on their rights and freedoms”. The High Commissioner reported that the government’s lack of recognition of human rights violations has perpetuated impunity and favoured the repetition of such violations. The report also expresses concern about recently approved laws which may further restrict civic space, in particular ahead of the upcoming elections in November 2021.

In the Council’s session, civil society organisations denounced the systematic repression of protests in Nicaragua and the criminalisation of journalists, human rights defenders and opposition groups. Before the end of the session, scheduled for 23rd March 2021, members of the Council will decide on a resolution regarding the country’s human rights crisis. Through a joint statement, 19 international and national civil society organisations called on Member States to ensure the renewal of the High Commissioner’s mandate to monitor and inform on Nicaragua’s situation. The organisations, including CIVICUS, said the country’s human rights situation is critical and requires a firm resolution by the Council - sending a clear message that the international community supports victims and human rights defenders in the pursuit of justice, truth and reparation.

Association

In the first months of 2021, facilities previously belonging to independent news outlets and civil society organisations were dismantled and converted into social services buildings. Between January and March 2021, the offices of human rights organisation Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos (Nicaraguan Centre of Human Rights - CENIDH) and news outlets Confidencial and 100% Noticias were converted into health centres under the Ministry of Health. Facilities of Instituto de Liderazgo de Las Segovias (Leadership Institute of Las Segovias) were converted into a building of the Universidad Campesina (UNICAM). These different organisations’ offices were raided as part of a widespread crackdown on civil society and media in December 2018, and their assets had subsequently been confiscated by the government.

The organisations reacted saying that these actions will not stop them from continuing their work. On its social media accounts, the human rights centre said:

“CENIDH is not four walls, some furniture or a single person, CENIDH is all of Nicaragua demanding justice, democracy and human rights. They will not silence us.”

In a separate development, on 26th February 2021 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) published a statement calling on the Ortega government to repeal the Law on Foreign Agents. According to the IACHR, the law’s content is contrary to international standards, establishing disproportionate penalties such as the cancellation of the legal personality of organisations identified as foreign agents. It also provides specific mechanisms of criminalisation, enabling authorities to request intervention of criminal prosecution bodies for presumed “crimes against State security”. In addition, the IACHR expressed concern about the effects of the law’s implementation, highlighting that at least two organisations decided to suspend their activities in the country rather than register, while other organisations attempting to register have reportedly been asked for documentation beyond what was required by the legislation.

Expression

Journalist Kastalia Zapata denounced that police officers sexually assaulted, threatened and intimidated her on 28th February 2021, when she was covering the launch of opposition candidate Félix Maradiaga’s campaign for the presidency. Zapata said a police agent conducted an improper inspection, which included touching her breasts several times, and made discriminatory and stigmatising comments toward her. The police, surrounding the hotel where a press conference took place, reportedly inspected belongings, seized equipment and took pictures of members of the press and opposition groups who attended the launch. Nicaraguan news outlets reported that Noel Miranda from Articulo 66 was also threatened by officers when leaving the event.

In a separate but related development, on 1st March 2021, 470 journalists from 40 countries published a letter in solidarity with Nicaragua’s independent journalists, condemning the government’s repression. The letter says that the country’s journalists did not have much to celebrate on the National Day of Journalists, asserting that “since the beginning of the civic protests, in April 2018, the government in the hands of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo has exercised a systematic repression against dissident voices, particularly against media outlets that are not under their control, to the point of finally confiscating the facilities where independent media operated.”

Pedro Vaca, the IACHR’s Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, also conveyed his concern about the erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law in Nicaragua. Vaca said that the country’s situation continues to worsen, telling El País that the government uses sophisticated methods of censorship and manipulates the justice system to punish and intimidate critical voices. Vaca highlighted that Nicaragua’s journalists and media are commonly harassed by the police. The Special Rapporteur praised the country’s press for continuing their work under dire circumstances, saying:

“In this use of force against the press, we also find the forced occupation of media facilities and raids without any kind of legal support to the residences of journalists in different parts of the country. This is serious, but it contrasts with a very resilient, courageous journalism that refuses to give in to censorship pressures.”

In a positive development, after PEN Nicaragua announced the suspension of their activities due to an increasingly hostile environment, exacerbated by the recent Foreign Agents Law, PEN International decided to create a regional alliance to continue working to defend freedom of expression in Nicaragua. This global observatory will be led by PEN Centres in countries such as Argentina, Mexico and the United States and will also have the support of Centres in Paraguay, Canada, Ecuador and Puerto Rico, as well as sister human rights organisations.