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Although the Nicaraguan Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and information, news sources indicate that these fundamental rights have been in decline since 2007 when the current administration began. Violations of freedom of expression and information have become “acute” since a political crisis broke out in April 2018. The censorship challenges have remained during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, the government has denied independent and international media participation in Ministry of Health briefings regarding the pandemic. The data related to the pandemic is centralized and kept in secrecy. Health professionals who demanded transparency from the government with respect to pandemic-related information were fired from public hospitals by the Ministry of Health. The independent COVID-19 Nicaraguan Citizen’s Observatory monitoring the pandemic publishes weekly data that radically contrasts with the data provided by the government. International institutions including the Pan American Health Organization have repeatedly asked the government of Nicaragua to be more transparent with information related to the pandemic.
I. Legislation Regulating Freedom of Speech
Freedom of speech is a constitutionally protected right in Nicaragua. Specifically, the Constitution provides that “Nicaraguans have the right to freely express their thoughts in public and in private, individually or collectively, orally, in writing or by any other means.” Similarly, freedom of information without censorship is a fundamental constitutional right of every citizen. Under the Constitution,
Nicaraguans have the right to truthful information. This right includes the freedom to seek, receive, and disseminate information and ideas, whether orally, in writing, graphically, or by any other procedure of their choice.
The right to inform is a social responsibility and it is exercised with strict respect for the principles established in the Constitution. This right cannot be subject to censorship, but to subsequent responsibilities established by law.
The media, within their social function, must contribute to the development of the nation.
Nicaraguans have the right of access to the media and the right of reply when their rights and guarantees are affected.
The State will ensure that the media are not subject to foreign interests or to the economic monopoly of any group. The law will regulate this matter.
The importation of paper, machinery, and equipment and spare parts for written, radio, and television social media, as well as the importation, circulation, and sale of books, brochures, magazines, school and scientific teaching materials, newspapers, and other periodicals, will be exempt from all kinds of municipal, regional, and fiscal taxes. The tax laws will regulate the matter.
Public, corporate, and private media may not be subject to prior censorship. In no case may the printing press or its accessories, or any other means or equipment intended for the dissemination of thought, be confiscated as an instrument or corpus delicti.
Nicaragua promulgated its Law on Access to Public Information in 2007. The purpose of this Law is to regulate, guarantee, and promote the exercise of the right of access to public information existing in the documents, files, and databases of public entities or institutions; private companies doing business with the state and those subsidized by the state; and private entities that administer, manage, or receive public resources, tax benefits, or other benefits, concessions or advantages. Under this Law, everyone has the right to request and receive data, records, and all kinds of public information in a complete, adequate, and timely manner from all entities subject to the Law, except for the exceptions provided, such as for personal information.
As mandated by article 52 of the Law on Access to Public Information, the Personal Data Protection Law was promulgated in 2012. The object of this Law is to protect individuals and legal entities against the processing of their personal data, whether automated or not and whether they stored in public or private data files, in order to guarantee the right to personal and family privacy and to informed self-determination.
The Penal Code imposes penalties on anyone who, through violence or intimidation, prevents the exercise of freedom of expression; the right to inform and to be informed; or the free circulation of books, magazines, newspapers, voice or image-reproducing tapes, or any other means of broadcasting and dissemination of thought. The penalty for those who violate this provision is three to five years’ imprisonment and disqualification from the exercise of the perpetrator’s profession or trade related to the criminal activity for the period of imprisonment.
II. Restrictions on Freedom of Speech and Information
Although the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech as a fundamental right, there are abundant reports that freedom of the press has declined considerably since 2007 when the current administration began. The press has been the subject of political and judicial harassment, threats, arrests, and physical attacks.
The US Department of State’s 2019 Country Report on Human Rights Practices: Nicaragua included the following in a list of the Nicaraguan government’s violations of freedom of expression and the press:
Although the law provides that the right to information may not be subjected to censorship, the government and actors under its control retaliated against the press and radio and television stations by blocking transmissions, impeding the import of ink and paper, and violence against journalists. Some independent media outlets also reported they were victims of cyberattacks. . . . Independent media outlets experienced vandalism, seizure of broadcast equipment, arrest, and fear of criminal defamation charges. The government repeatedly denied broadcasting licenses and other permits for independent media. Further attempts to intimidate came through continued financial audits performed by the Directorate General of Revenue, which resulted in referral of cases to the Customs and Administrative Tax Court. . . . Journalists were subject to government violence, harassment, and death threats. Renowned journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro went into exile in January after receiving harassment and death threats. On November 25, he returned, along with five other journalists.
Many journalists have left the country, and printed newspapers have almost gone out of business due to “government-orchestrated shortages of newsprint, rubber and other essential supplies.”
The Inter-American Press Society (IAPA), during its 75th General Assembly held in Florida on October 4-7, 2019, adopted a resolution stating that in Nicaragua “the written media are in a critical situation and in imminent danger of disappearing due to the customs blockade to obtain their supplies.” The IAPA also said the Nicaraguan government “maintains its communicational hegemony through an oligopoly on television, aggravated by the closure of 100% Noticias television and all opinion programs on Channel 12, as well as the closure of Confidencial,” a daily.
Since the political crisis that broke out in 2018 after authorities announced social security reforms,
[r]epression of journalists has become acute . . . . The state ordered television companies and mobile phone service providers to stop transmitting several independent news channels through their systems. Numerous outlets have been raided and closed. In December 2018, police raided and confiscated equipment from the facilities of the digital news platform Confidencial and the television program Esta Semana, and closed the news station 100% Noticias. In September 2019, the government announced that it would not return 100% Noticias to its owners until it had completed its investigations of station director Miguel Mora, and news director Lucía Pineda. Both had been charged with terrorism and detained in 2018, though they were released in June 2019.
The 2019 edition of the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that Nicaragua, which had been in the 90th position in 2018, fell 24 positions lower, ranking 114th out of a total of 180 countries evaluated¾“one of the most significant declines in 2019.”
III. Censorship During the COVID-19 Pandemic
During the current COVID-19 pandemic, Nicaragua has continued to impose the same restrictions on journalists’ mobility and coverage as in normal times, but the government maintains a “wall of disinformation” about COVID-19 to prevent panic in the population. Independent media journalists have been restricted from access to public health information and blocked from participation in Ministry of Health press briefings. The international press are also blocked from these briefings. Only the official media and those belonging to the private consortium of the presidential family may attend.
Despite government control over the media and public information, independent media cover information about the pandemic remotely. For instance, two independent newspapers, Confidencial and Esta Semana, have been reporting remotely, disclosing their information via the internet and through the social media networks YouTube and Facebook, because their editorial offices have been illegally occupied by the police since December 14, 2018.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has expressed its concern over the lack of transparency of the government of Nicaragua when publicly providing official information on the country’s response to COVID-19 and the lack of access to information on infections and deaths. According to its report, the Nicaraguan authorities “have been using unclear language” and “vague terminology” to refer to coronavirus infections. For instance, the government has attributed the death of some persons to underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, or atypical pneumonia, instead of the virus.
The government has minimized the pandemic by insisting that the country’s health system has COVID-19 under control. There is a prevailing secrecy surrounding the pandemic and a lack of widespread testing to determine the actual progress of the virus. Hospitals are overcrowded with people who have COVID-19-related symptoms, reflecting a reality that is different from what the government claims. This leads doctors, such as pulmonologist Jorge Iván Miranda, who has treated almost a hundred patients suspected of contagion, to conclude that the Ortega government ”hides” cases of COVID-19. During the first weeks of the pandemic, the Ministry of Health (Ministerio de Salud, MINSA) restricted the use of protective equipment by health professionals because, according to MINSA, “it was alarming and created panic” among the population.
In a public statement issued on May 18, 2020, 716 public-sector health professionals demanded government transparency with regard to data on the pandemic, the declaration of a community transmission phase of the pandemic, implementation of the mitigation standards recommended by the World Health Organization, an end to the persecution and harassment of health professionals, and the provision of protective equipment for health personnel in public hospitals, among other demands. According to the statement, ”the government strategy has been to keep the diagnostic tests for COVID-19 centralized--and difficult to access--so the number of tests (and their results) carried out by the Ministry of Health is unknown, making it impossible to know the real dimension of the pandemic.“ The statement added that “the deliberate concealment and manipulation of the actual number of people affected does not allow the application of appropriate epidemiological measures of containment and mitigation.”
Within weeks of publication of the above statement the health professionals who signed the statement were fired by MINSA officials without following the standard legal procedures for dismissal. Among those fired was Dr. Carlos Quant, an infectious-disease specialist and a member of the independent Scientific Multidisciplinary Committee created to respond to the pandemic, who has 25 years of service in a public hospital. In Quant’s opinion, he was fired by the Ministry of Health “as reprisal for criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic.” Dr. Quant was quoted by the Spanish daily El País as saying that “[w]hen we send a sample of a patient to the MINSA for the test, they don’t give us the result. Only verbally do they communicate the diagnosis, but we do not have access to a document, detailing the laboratory analysis.” He added that “[m]ost of the results are now declared undetermined. It is the way to maintain concealment.”
The government’s reported numbers of coronavirus cases radically contrast with those presented by a network of experts and volunteers who, because of the lack of credibility of the government’s reports, keep a parallel count of coronavirus cases in the country. The COVID-19 Nicaraguan Citizen’s Observatory (Observatorio Ciudadano COVID-19 Nicaragua) is an independent monitoring group that collects information from civil organizations, social networks, and individual citizens who wish to contribute to filling the information gap on the situation of COVID-19 in the country. Their team is made up of volunteers, medical professionals (including epidemiologists), communications experts, researchers, computer science experts, and students. The Citizen’s Observatory receives numerous reports, but only publishes information that has been verified by their own sources, which include networks of recognized community leaders. It also reports suspected cases of COVID-19 where persons present associated or presumptive symptoms of COVID-19 and have a travel history, or have been in contact with a person confirmed by the heath authorities as having COVID-19.
Although research methodologies and protocols may differ, the contrast between the data published by the government and that of the Citizen’s Observatory is nonetheless striking. The Citizen’s Observatory reported as the following figures for July 23–29, 2020:
- Suspected COVID-19 cases reported by the Citizen’s Observatory: 9,044
- Pneumonia and suspected COVID-19 deaths reported by the Citizen’s Observatory: 2,537
- COVID-19 cases confirmed by MINSA: 3,672
- COVID-19 deaths reported by MINSA: 116
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has reiterated to the Nicaraguan government the need for transparency in information related to the pandemic. The director of PAHO’s Department of Communicable Diseases, Marcos Espinal, recently told Voice of America (VOA) that “[w]hat PAHO has asked is that the numbers of infections, the places of the outbreaks, [and] the ages of the victims be made known. . . . But there are no details, there has not been an answer.”
Prepared by Norma C. Gutiérrez
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
 Id. art. 66 (all translations by author).
 Id. art. 67.
 Id. art. 68 (emphasis added).
 Id. art. 3(1).
 Id. art. 4(b).
 Luís O. Castillo, SIP Alerta Falta de Libertad de Prensa en Nicaragua, Progreso Hispano (Oct. 10, 2019), https://perma.cc/LJ2J-C4TB; IAPA, 75th Gen. Assemb., Resolution: Nicaragua (Oct. 4-7, 2019), https://perma.cc/V2C9-9F4H.
 Freedom House, supra note 10,at 9.
 COVID-19 y su Impacto sobre la Libertad de Prensa, supra note 17.
 Carlos Fernando Chamorro, En Nicaragua, Periodistas Cubren el Coronavirus a Pesar del Control Gubernamental sobre la Información Pública, NiemanReports (Apr. 6, 2020), https://perma.cc/2P47-8ES9.
 Miranda, supra note 23.
 Fabián Medina Sánchez, Nicaragua: Como se Organizó una Red Paralela para Tratar de Conocer la Cifra Real de Muertos por Coronavirus que Oculta el Régimen de Daniel Ortega, Infoae (May 9, 2020), https://perma.cc/CU38-Q6WP.
Last Updated: 12/30/2020