MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Reporters for an online news site are writing their stories in secret locations. Editors of the country’s only 24-hour news network have been jailed. And employees of a major human rights organization have escaped into the mountains.
“I am 80 years old, and I am in no condition to go up into the mountains, not even to save my life,” said Vilma Núñez, a well-known lawyer who founded the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights.
In the past few weeks, President Daniel Ortega’s forces have launched a wave of repression against civil society groups and journalism outlets that is choking off what little remains of democracy in this Central American country.
The government recently stripped nine civil society groups of their legal standing and seized their assets. News organizations critical of the Ortega administration have been closed, and some editors have been charged with crimes including conspiracy to commit terrorist acts.
“The government is trying to shut down all political dissidence and impose a reign of fear and terror, targeting its opponents,” said Paulo Abrão, director of the human rights commission of the Organization of American States (OAS).
The crackdown marks a new stage in the government’s efforts to destroy a protest movement that emerged in April and swelled into giant demonstrations demanding Ortega’s resignation. Police and paramilitary forces responded by opening fire on protesters. According to the OAS commission, 324 people have been killed in the uprising. The government puts the toll at 198, including 21 police deaths.
In December, a panel of independent investigators named by the OAS concluded that the actions by Nicaragua’s security forces could be considered crimes against humanity. They called for an investigation of Ortega, noting that the coordinated, sustained campaign by the national police “could only be explained by a decision taken by the maximum authorities” of the country. They also urged an investigation of the police leadership and judiciary.
Authorities kicked the investigators out of the country shortly before the report was issued. The government responded to its conclusions by accusing the investigators of ignoring deadly violence by protesters. It also alleged that they were “echoing the policies of the Government of the United States of America against Nicaragua.”
For months, the government has pursued those directly involved in the demonstrations, arresting more than 400 and prompting thousands to flee the country. Now it is intensifying its campaign against news organizations and nonprofit groups it views as sympathetic to the protests.
Jaime Chamorro, publisher of the country’s most influential daily, La Prensa, said in an interview that the attacks on the media were worse than the censorship that occurred in the 1980s, when the leftist Sandinista government was fighting the U.S.-backed contra rebels.
Then, he noted, a war was underway. “But how do you justify the shutdown of media today, when we are living in peace?” he asked.
Ortega, now 73, was a top figure in the Sandinista rebel movement that overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. The onetime Marxist fighter went on to lead the government until 1990, when he lost the presidential election.
Over the next several years, as international donors sought to strengthen Nicaragua’s democracy, more than 4,000 civic groups were established, according to Felix Maradiaga, the Harvard-trained director of a think tank in Managua, the Institute for Strategic Studies on Public Policy.
Ortega was reelected in 2006 and began to consolidate power. Today, along with his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, he virtually controls many state institutions — including the courts, the National Assembly, the police and the electoral council.
In the absence of strong opposition parties, civic groups and the media have effectively become a major political force, Maradiaga said. That’s why it is so significant that Ortega’s government is cracking down on those groups, he told a recent panel organized by the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
When the protests erupted in April, “the civil society had awakened. The press was really playing a fundamental role in energizing the population in its search for freedom,” Maradiaga said.
The government’s foreign-press spokesman and other Nicaraguan officials did not respond to requests for comment. But the government has said the protests amounted to a “soft coup” supported by its opponents, including those in civil society groups and the media. Among those it is seeking to arrest is Maradiaga, charging that he financed and trained the protesters. He denies the allegations.
The most recent government actions target some of the country’s most prominent civic and media institutions, many of whose leaders have historical ties to the Sandinista movement. For example, Confidencial, an independent news site, is run by Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a scion of one of Nicaragua’s most famous political families and the onetime editor of the Sandinista newspaper Barricada. It was shut down Dec. 14. A week later, the cable TV station 100% Noticias was forced off the air, and two of its editors were jailed.
La Prensa continues to operate, but its publisher, Jaime Chamorro — the uncle of the Confidencial director — said it is being strangled financially by the government.
“On top of everything, they have blocked our imports of paper and ink,” he said. “We only have enough to operate for two months.”
Eight months after they started, the anti-government protests have largely been extinguished. But it is unclear whether the government’s increasingly repressive measures will keep Ortega in power until the next election, in 2021.
The economy, which had been growing steadily in recent years, shrank by about 4 percent in 2018 as the political turmoil hit tourism and other businesses.
And international pressure is growing. On Dec. 20, President Trump signed into law a measure aimed at blocking new loans to Nicaragua by international financial institutions. His administration had already announced sanctions against senior Nicaraguan officials including Murillo, the vice president.
Meanwhile, the OAS is considering penalizing Nicaragua for violating democratic norms, a process that could lead to sanctions or to the country being suspended from the organization.
Today, almost no one envisions the rise of a foreign-backed rebel movement of the kind that fought governments in the region in the 1980s. But in Nicaragua, “there is a tradition on all sides of improvised weaponry,” said Geoff Thale, a specialist on Central America at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy group. “You don’t get civil war out of that, but you could get violent resistance. That is a concern, especially in the countryside.”
For now, beleaguered journalists are trying to find a way to keep putting out the news. The offices of Confidencial have been occupied by police, but reporters continue to update the website, working from undisclosed locations.
“We have improvised an alternative newsroom,” said one reporter, Wilfredo Miranda. “We are working by remote control.”
Sheridan reported from Mexico City.