MANAGUA – A growing chorus of foreign governments and international human-rights groups are raising concerns over the deteriorating rights situation in Nicaragua following the Sandinista government’s aggressive investigation of civil society groups and journalists who have questioned the administration.
An international group of distinguished former politicians led by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter was the latest to declare its “deep concern” over democratic freedoms in Nicaragua.
Signed by Carter, who was president when the Sandinista National Liberation Front first came to power in 1979 and who monitored the 2006 presidential election that returned Daniel Ortega to power 27 years later, the group’s letter cites worries over how the Sandinista government is targeting opponents and has banned opposition political parties from participating in the upcoming elections.
The European Union, the U.S. State Department, the New York-based Human Rights Watch, a distinguished group of female Nobel Prize winners and the Parisbased press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders are among groups and government organizations that have raised their voice in concern over the situation here during the past two weeks.
Reporters Without Borders sent President Ortega a letter expressing its “deep concern” about press freedoms in Nicaragua. The group said it was “dismayed” by the passivity of police when representatives of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) were assaulted outside the state prosecutor’s office Oct. 16 by members of Ortega’s controversial Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs), Sandinista neighborhood groups.
The human rights advocates were attacked by the CPC members and one had his camera stolen as police stood by watching. The commanding officer was later sanctioned for his negligence by the National Police’s high command.
“There has been a sharp decline in the state of public freedoms in your country,” read the letter to Ortega, signed by the pressfreedom watchdog group’s secretary general, Jean-François Julliard.
The Reporters without Borders letter is the second major press organization to raise concerns about freedom of expression here. The Inter-American Press Association earlier this month warned of “escalated hostilities” by the Ortega government toward the independent press (NT, Oct. 17).
The New York-based Human Rights Watch released its own statement Oct. 22 saying the Nicaraguan government should “stop intimidating women’s rights defenders,” in reference to the government’s crackdown on the Autonomous Women’s Movement (MAM ), which has been critical of the government’s ban on therapeutic abortion and supported Ortega’s stepdaughter, Zoilamérica Narvaez, in her 1998 sexual abuse allegation against Ortega.
Earlier this month, state investigators raided the offices of MAM and the Center of Communication and Investigation (CINCO), and confiscated the group’s bookkeeping and computers as part of its investigation that rights leaders call “illegal.”
Though the government has not officially said what it’s investigating, the official media has alleged that the groups are involved in “money laundering” – a claim those under investigation say is ridiculous.
Both CINCO, headed by renowned journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, and MAM insist they are being targeted in a political witch-hunt – a position shared by a growing number of international observers.
“These investigations risk causing a chilling effect on legitimate activities by civil society groups,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch.
The 27 governments of the European Union made public a statement last week that outlines their “concerns due to investigations of certain NGOs in Nicaragua.”
Oxfam Great Britain and Swedish foreign development agency Forum Syd are among the NGOs under government investigation here.
“The European Union sees it of great importance that NGOs be allowed to freely develop their activities within the existing legal framework,” said the statement, released by the French Embassy in Managua.
Accusations from media “cannot substitute due process before the courts,” the EU said in a reference to the harassing smear campaign by Sandinista media outlets.
Reporters Without Borders said the Nicaraguan government’s raids of the offices of CINCO and MAM were “riddled with irregularities and carried out in an atmosphere of violence and intimidation.”
The group said the government’s “witchhunt” against NGOs and privately owned media has already prompted other journalists to soften political coverage, giving as an example editorialist Edgar Tijerino’s decision to retire from political commentary after the Sandinista media targeted his family in response.
The letter also decried the CPCs’ “harassment” of the daily La Prensa and the defamation campaign of Sandinista TV station Canal 4 Multinoticias against Santiago Aburto of Canal 12 and Jaime Arellano, a former commentator on Canal 2.
Arellano, who the government media outlet calls “the fat devil,” was also summoned to appear before the prosecutor’s office Oct. 8 in connection with an interview he did with former Mexican President Vicente Fox, which the government claims is an “external interference” during an election period, in violation of Nicaragua’s electoral law.
“This accusation shows a determination to make the journalist responsible for comments, which it is his job to report,” reads the letter from Reporters without Borders.
The “demonization” of the press has wider repercussions in the daily life of journalists, the letter said, citing the case of a journalist of the daily El Nuevo Diario who was allegedly denied a vaccination he needed to go abroad by a Health Ministry official who labeled him a “representative of the oligarchy”.
“Such ostracism is particularly serious in that it opens the way for all kinds of abuse at all levels of government,” Julliard said.
Julliard concluded by urging Ortega to “have this campaign of hatred and suspicion brought to an end.”
At the Oct. 16 clash in front of the prosecutor’s office, in which pro-Ortega demonstrators and CPC members allegedly attacked human rights representatives who were accompanying an Oxfam Great Britain representative to an interview with prosecutors, CENIDH’s 70-year-old director Vilma Nuñez “narrowly escaped” a beating from the CPCs.
Nuñez traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to address the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about the worrisome situation of political rights and freedom of expression in Nicaragua.
Ortega last week defended the state of the country’s democracy, saying Nicaragua has “limitless freedom of expression” and not a single “political prisoner” or “political persecution.” Ortega noted that there are 4,202 non-government organizations here and only a handful are under investigation.
“The reality is that Nicaragua is a country with the most ample liberties,” Ortega said.
The growing international outcry, however, speaks to the contrary. Lawmaker Jamileth Bonilla, president of the National Assembly’s commission on foreign affairs, told The Nica Times this week that she’s concerned the administration’s probe of NGOs and journalists will only come back to haunt the country in the long run if donors decide to pull their support for the country.
“Nicaragua can’t afford to lose aid,” she said. “It’s only going to make it harder for us to reduce poverty.”