Freedom of Expression

Press release R246/20

The IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression express concern about new legal threats to freedom of expression and indirect measures against the media and journalists in Nicaragua

October 7, 2020

Washington D.C., - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression (RELE) express concern about the escalation of repression in Nicaragua marked by the presentation of two bills before the National Assembly, which seriously threaten the exercise of freedom expression, as well as the imposition of fiscal sanctions against the media and judicial harassment of journalists.

According to the information available, as well as the reports of the Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI), in recent weeks, deputies of the ruling party have presented to the National Assembly two bills that establish criminal sanctions and a system of registration and control of organizations and other actors of civil society, which are against the exercise of social protest, particularly against freedom of expression, the right to participate in public affairs, and the right of association.

On September 22, the initiative for the Law for the Regulation of Foreign Agents was presented, which forces natural or legal persons who receive funds directly or indirectly from foreign governments, agencies, foundations, companies, or associations to register as "foreign agents". This entails the obligation to present reports, and the impossibility of intervening in matters of internal politics and of "being civil servants, public employees, or candidates for public office." Finally, it provides for the possibility of establishing, in the event of non-compliance, fines, cancellation of legal personality, criminal liability for the commission of crimes against State security, and even the intervention of property and the prohibition of activities.

Likewise, on September 28, the draft Special Law on Cybercrimes was introduced, which establishes prison sentences and fines for various behaviors related to the use of digital media. Among the provisions of this law, is of concern the one that provides criminal penalties for the publication or dissemination of "false and/or misrepresented information that causes alarm, fear, or anxiety in the population ...".

Several social organizations and independent media in Nicaragua receive funds from international cooperation, in the context of a human rights crisis and due to the exclusion of these media from access to official advertising or restrictions imposed by the State.

On the other hand, the Commission and the Office of the Special Rapporteur have received information about the embargo on Nicavisión S.A., owner of Channel 12, for an alleged fiscal debt of 21 million córdobas, by the General Directorate of Revenues (DGI). Days ago, the court decreed a millionaire embargo on the channel in application of that supposed debt, which would prevent it from continuing to operate. The directors of the media affirm that they do not owe the imposed amounts and that the process continued without any of their defenses having been considered. Likewise, the DGI would have imposed a tax relief on Channel 10 for 110 million córdobas.

Finally, the IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur observe with concern the increase in criminal cases against journalists, invoking crimes incompatible with the American Convention, such as contempt, defamation, and insults. One of the most recent cases is that of La Costeñísima radio journalist, Kalúa Salazar, who was convicted of slander after denouncing acts of corruption in the Mayor's Office of El Rama. According to available information, the journalist and director of the digital platform Ecological Bulletin, David Quintana, and the journalist William Aragón have also been reported for the same crime.

The IACHR and the Office of the Special Rapporteur recall that Principle 13 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression of the IACHR establishes that "[t]he exercise of power and the use of public funds by the state, […], with the intent to put pressure on and punish or reward and provide privileges to social communicators and communications media because of the opinions they express threaten freedom of expression, and must be explicitly prohibited by law. The media have the right to carry out their role in an independent manner. Direct or indirect pressures exerted upon journalists or other social communicators to stifle the dissemination of information are incompatible with freedom of expression."

In this regard, the Rapporteurs of the UN, OSCE, IACHR, and ACHPR in their 2018 Joint Declaration on the independence and diversity of the media expressed their concern about the actions of officials to restrict the independence of the media, limiting thus opportunities for people to have access to credible and trustworthy news sources that offer a variety of points of view.

The IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur emphasize that under Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, speeches on matters of public interest have reinforced protection, and insists on the need not to use blank, vague, or ambiguous criminal figures to criminalize expressions that, although they may be offensive, shocking, or irritate officials or part of the population, constitute expressions of public interest that should not be criminalized in a democratic society. The use of criminal law as a mechanism to prosecute those who express opinions, information, or criticism of government authorities or policies, as well as on matters of public interest, generates a chilling effect that limits freedom of expression.

Finally, the Office of the Special Rapporteur points out that the 2011 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and the Internet of the IACHR and UN Special Rapporteurs provides as a general principle that "freedom of expression applies to the Internet in the same way as to all media. Restrictions on freedom of expression on the Internet are only acceptable if they comply with established international standards, including that they are provided for by law, and that they are necessary to protect an interest which is recognized under international law (the ‘three-part’ test)".

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.