Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), had a tight schedule in Bogota, where he arrived last week to deliver an award that recognized the best journalistic research in Latin America, in the COLPIN contest, based on requests for access to public information. Although he was only for a few hours in the Colombian capital, he took time to talk about the situation in Nicaragua, the country in the region that currently “worries” the Office he leads.
Lanza knows first-hand the state of freedom of expression and press in Latin America. In the set of abuses that independent journalists suffer in the continent, he places among the most serious cases the continued illegal detention that Nicaraguan reporters are suffering at the hands of the Police of the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.
“There are no guarantees for journalism. Until that happens, journalists will continue to do their job with a lot of courage, and in a kind of conditional freedom: at any moment they can be attacked or detained,” warned Lanza.
In this new phase of repression in Nicaragua, the rapporteur emphasizes in this interview with Confidencial the persecution focused on local journalists, the use of the Institute of Telecommunications and Postal Services (TELCOR) as a censor, and the physical aggression committed by police officers and paramilitary groups to the detriment of reporters.
The repression in Nicaragua has mutated. It is in another phase of selective persecution in which journalists do not escape. How does the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression see it?
With concern. The Government has ignored the recommendations made in the first report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. At this moment, Nicaragua is the country in the region with the most arbitrary arrests of journalists. They are based on the application of vague and contradictory concepts of international law. Events and situations are interpreted to simply apply terrorism laws: that a journalist encouraged a prison riot, as is the case of Sergio Leon in Bluefields; or that journalists promoted attacks against the security of the State. Already at least six journalists were detained in the last two months.
In the Office of the Rapporteur we pay attention to the concentration of media outlets. The control of media outlets be it public or private, by the regulatory authority. TELCOR obviously has no independence at all from the government. It was a gross and unprecedented attempt to regulate the radio-electric spectrum to try to get “100% Noticias” (News) out of subscriber television.
They got into an agreement between private parties…and assigned Channel 15 to the State Channel 6.
No State, definitely, can establish rules between private parties. The State could have objective rules, but this case seemed strange to me, because private channels could be said to be put in such and such numbers, sports and news channels in others. There is a margin for those things. This was done with name and surname to try to get “100% Noticias” off the air, and leave it without space in an agreement between private parties.
Do you believe that they use TELCOR as an instrument against critical media?
We have already stated in the report of the IACHR that in order to democratize Nicaragua one of the essential requirements is to have an authority that regulates the media and has autonomy and independence from the government, something that has not existed thus far. It has been the contrary: they have proven to be an instrument to try to silence critical voices, and in the midst of this crisis it becomes more effective. Before they took community radio programs off the air. The State believes that it can fool all of us all the time. It is obvious that the paramilitary groups have not been dismantled; the penal apparatus is used just to criminalize those who are outspoken leaders in their localities.
The latest trend of attacks against the press is concentrated in arrests of local journalists Just in Leon they arrested several radio reporters in a week.
Now there is a tendency to suppress freedom of expression to generate the effect of fear and inhibition in local journalists, who report with a critical voice. They take advantage that now there is more attention on Managua, and what happens in larger media outlets. Likewise, they tried to diminish the convening power that “100% Noticias” has. On the other hand, there are journalists that have been attacked by gangs that operate with the complicity of the State.
Notoriously, there is a total departure from the State’s obligations in this matter. The State has to prevent, protect and guarantee that journalists do their job, and here is quite the opposite. They let the groups act that operate with the consent of the Police. If a journalist is attacked, there is no investigation.
The crime against Angel Gahona is very serious. The murder in the context of his work is under a cloak of suspicion. They have not allowed the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) and to the IACHR to have access to the hearings, investigations and statements of those whom the State indicates are perpetrators. The relatives of Gahona have, legitimately, a lot of suspicions and distrust. The fire and brutal attack against Radio Dario continues unpunished; its director had to go into exile. To do journalism in Nicaragua is dangerous. Those who are doing independent journalism are at risk, because it is the State itself that allows them to be attacked.
The Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation documents 420 violations of press freedom in just six months in Nicaragua. There are campaigns to harass, discredit, libel, arrest and attack. What is the opinion of the Office of the Rapporteur on the treatment given by the Government to the independent press?
The State does not take measures to put an end to impunity for the 400 attacks that have occurred against the independent press. I am not saying that all of them will be clarified, but the serious violations to the physical integrity of journalists should definitely be clarified, because they were premeditated crimes to silence them.
Freedom of expression is a sine qua non condition of a democratic system. If Nicaragua wants to rebuild the democratic system as the great majority wish, reestablish fair elections, and end the cycle of violence they suffer, in order to move to a new stage in which political forces can coexist. For this to happen freedom of expression must be guaranteed and the right to protest, to criticize, without fear of reprisals and arbitrary detentions.
What is the risk of this policy of persecution to continue against journalists in a crisis situation such as the one in Nicaragua?
Everything is having an inhibiting effect. There is destruction of voices and journalists who are witnesses of what is happening. Many take the path of exile or become silent. As I was saying, they use legal concepts of absolute vagueness. International law protects freedom of expression, especially in political and public interest matters. The restrictions that may exist must be established in a very clear and precise law so that journalists know the illicit behaviors that are being penalized. Any sanction should be proportional.
But, when they say that journalists infringe on peace, promote hatred, terrorism, and incite violence, anything can fit in that. And, above all, when the accusation comes from the State that has been one of the aggressors against freedoms in Nicaragua. There are no guarantees. Until that happens, journalists will continue to do their job with a lot of courage, and in a kind of conditional freedom: at any moment they can be attacked or detained.