Nicaraguan lawmakers are homing in on legislation that could muzzle foreign journalists and enable President Daniel Ortega to accelerate his regime’s clamp down on political dissent.
Members of the nation’s congress, which is controlled by loyalists to President Ortega, are close to passing two new laws that promise to severely limit freedom of speech.
“Nicaragua’s Congress has proposed ambiguous legislation that leaves ample room for authorities to criminalize independent media and journalists simply for doing their jobs,” said Natalie Southwick, Central and South American officer for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The first law targets the spread of false news online and would mandate prison time for those who violate it. The second would force non-governmental organizations and foreign press correspondents to register with the government so that their income can be tracked.
Congressional committees will review the bill and hold a vote in the coming days. If passed, the legislation will head to Ortega to be signed into law.
The bill is the latest proposed limitation on freedoms two years into a wider crackdown on political adversaries and opposition figures in Nicaragua. Ortega was elected in 2007 and has remained in power by taking pages out of the late socialist president of Venezuela Hugo Chávez’s authoritarian playbook.
Once an anti-government rebel himself, Ortega fought to overthrow a U.S.-backed dictatorship in the 1970s as part of the Sandinista movement.
Nicaragua has experienced a slow motion breakdown in democratic institutions during Ortega’s term. Ortega has concentrated power in the executive, thrown out foreign diplomatic officials and adopted an increasingly authoritarian style of governance.
In April 2018, a pension reform triggered widespread unrest in the Central American nation of 6.5 million. Protestors called for Ortega’s resignation, and his government responded with oppressive tactics including beatings and extrajudicial killings, leaving at least 300 dead, according to Human Rights Watch.
Since then, Ortega’s government has thrown dozens of political opposition figures in jail and fabricated charges against them, claims the United States Treasury Department. The U.S. Treasury recently sanctioned Attorney General Ana Julia Guido and Ortega’s Chief of Staff Ortega Paul Herbert Oquist Kelley.
“The U.S. will continue to take the necessary steps to support the Nicaraguan people and pressure the Ortega regime to cease repression, respect human rights, and restore democracy to Nicaragua,” tweeted U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on October 9.
The European Union also voted to advance with sanctions if the anti-free speech legislation is passed.
“Ortega has to go. I don’t have any doubt about it. We have got to understand that he will exit much faster if we work together,” said opposition leader Tamara Dávila Rivas on October 9 as news of the sanctions hit.
“And once they’re gone, we also have to work together to give life back into every Nicaraguan out there.”
Life after Ortega, who has not responded to the new sanctions against Nicaragua, remains a distant prospect. Under his watch, legislation that limits democratic freedom appears to face little resistance. With or without the U.S. and European sanctions, members of congress will cast their vote in the coming days.