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“Gag Law” Takes Effect in Nicaragua

The law is a threat to freedom of the press. It criminalizes investigative journalism and gives a green light to surveillance of private communications

TODAY NICARAGUA – On December 30th, the “Special Cybercrimes Law” came on the books in Nicaragua. The Sandinista majority in the National Assembly passed the law on October 27th. It now enters into effect, 60 days after being signed by the country’s president, Daniel Ortega.

Nicaragua’s National Assembly, dominated by the governing FSLN party. Photo: Jorge Torres / EFE

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According to the independent journalists’ association, this repressive law threatens press freedom and criminalizes investigative journalism. It also gives a green light to government surveillance of private communications.

Nicaragua’s independent press has dubbed the controversial law the “gag” or “muzzle” law. The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, the European Parliament, and the US, among others, strongly criticize it.

Ortega maintains that the law is to strengthen and regulate protections for the State communications system. It sanctions those who access, intercept, or make use of informational systems without authorization. It also applies to those who appropriate programs or data; or intercept, capture or record images, conversations or videos not intended for the public.  

The body of the law contains 48 articles. It proposes jail sentences for spreading false or distorted news. The law further criminalizes news that “causes alarm, fear, or unrest in the population, a group or sector, or a family”.

Key concepts

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The law contains 25 definitions. However, critics warn that it fails to define two concepts that are key to its application. These are: “fake news” and “distorted information”.

It will fall to the judicial system to decide what is, or is not, fake news. They also have the discretion to determine what information produces alarm, fear or unrest. As the Independent Nicaraguan Journalists’ and Communicators’ Movement (PCIN) cautions, that the judicial system is dominated by Sandinista-loyal judges and justices.

Given this, the PCIN compared the law to “a rifle pointed at the heads” of journalists. “It represents one of the worst threats to freedom of speech and the press of the last few years.” Further, they stated, it’s designed “to repress the men and women of the independent press”.

Self-censorship

The group known as the Independent Press Forum of Nicaragua also rejects this law. They argue that it seeks to censor and threaten the press and citizens in general. It aims to control and censor information on the internet, criminalize whistle-blowers, and impede journalistic investigations.

To caricaturist Pedro Molina, the “dictatorship”- referring to the Sandinista government – seeks to foster self-censorship. They want the press and citizens to censor themselves, for fear of landing in jail.

Exiled Nicaraguan journalist Wiston Potosme offered a similar message. This law, he stated, “begins a new phase of repression. It seeks to silence and regulate journalists or have them censor themselves. We independent journalists are the ones bringing information to the people, from a point of view not shared by the regime.”

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Government followers have posted messages on their social networks. They ask citizens to “inform the authorities of any attempt to disparage a person.” Or to report “any attempt to spread fake news that poses a threat to peace.”

The law establishes sentences of one to ten years in jail for citizens charged with cybercrimes that threaten “State security.”

Nicaraguan Human Rights Center: “It’s repressive”

To the NGO Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (Cenidh), this law “not only represses freedom of speech and the press. It also implies spying and absolute control of the social networks, digital platforms, and online profiles. It targets political activists, human rights defenders, and the entire general population that dares to oppose government policies.”

“This perverse law clearly pretends to condemn legitimate forums for online expression, association and meetings. It does so through the use of vague and undefined terms that can be applied arbitrarily or discretionally. These then produce legal uncertainty,” noted a spokesperson for the NGO.

Furthermore, Cenidh warns that the law “concedes broader powers to the Foreign Ministry and the Nicaraguan Institute of Telecommunications and Postal Services (Telcor). Under it, they can block internet sites that the authorities consider dangerous.”

“They even have the authority to block networks, applications and entire services that facilitate online access and information exchange,” the NGO added.

The laws gives Telcor the power to order any company, association, media outlet, or entity to “freeze” their informational databases. They can remain frozen for up to three months. These databases will then be made accessible to the police and the Attorney General. These bodies can then intervene and impound the equipment, in the case of cybercrimes.

According to constitutional experts, the norms of this law violate three articles of the Nicaraguan constitution. The provisions contradict constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and the press, and the right to have access to information.

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