Nicaragua’s National Assembly is expected to approve the Special Cybercrimes Law this week. The law is commonly known as the “Gag Law”. Independent journalists see it as “a sword” that will hang over independent communications media, state workers and opposition politicians. Its intent is to “generate terror” and “self-censorship”. It also serves “to legalize all the abuses” the Ortega- Murillo regime has perpetrated over the past few years.
Alvaro Navarro, who directs the online news service “Articulo 66”, issued a warning. “The dictatorship is going to exert as much pressure as possible” to silence the voices that have escaped their control. “That’s their mission.” However, this proposed law “simply legalizes what they’ve been doing de facto.”
Navarro recalled the trials of journalists Miguel Mora, Lucia Pineda Ubau and Kalua Salazar, for example. As far back as December 2018, they confiscated the television studios of 100% Noticias and the editorial offices of Confidencial.
With this law, the regime aims to “unsheathe their sword and point it at us, to silence us.” Navarro offered these thoughts on Sunday, October 25, during an appearance on the weekly internet news program Esta Semana. He participated together with digital marketing consultant Manuel Diaz and journalist Maria Lilly Delgado. Maria Delgado is currently the Nicaraguan correspondent for the Univision news chain.
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Manuel Diaz said the application of the “gag Law” will be directed towards specific sectors of society. These include journalists and citizens who “post their opinions on the internet with no pseudonyms and without protecting their identity.” In the case of regular citizens, they’re subject to the law, although they’re not the direct target. Accusations can be levied against them, even if they use an online alias. The registries of their internet activity automatically becomes “the body of the crime”.
In Nicaragua, there is already a precedent of putting journalists on trial. “The Nicaraguan government does nothing without coordinating with El Carmen,” Diaz believes. [Note: El Carmen is the residence and offices of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.] In all these legal trials “there’s clear coordination, from the plaintiff, to the prosecutor in charge, to the judge’s verdict. Everything is fully coordinated. Nothing is improvised, nothing is outside the coordination with El Carmen,” Manuel Diaz emphasized.
Who decides what’s fake news?
Maria Lilly Delgado questioned the ambiguity of the proposed law and the huge discretion possible for its interpretation. “Who decides what information is false?” “What does ‘damaging someone’s honor’ mean?” the journalist asked. She also noted that the crimes of libel and slander already exist in Nicaragua’s Penal Code, punishable with fines. Now, however, “with this cybercrimes law, violators will receive jail time.”
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Alvaro Navarro recalled that since April 2018, when the protests against the government began, Murillo “started a campaign”. As part of this campaign, she’s insisted “that everything was false, including a denial of the hundreds of deaths. She claimed that what had happened on the streets wasn’t certain.” Two years later, the Judicial Power, under Murillo’s control, will become the government branch charged with applying the “Gag Law”.
“False information”, or “fake news” could be anything that doesn’t please the regime. Even those who do parodies could be accused of identity theft, Manuel Diaz explained. It’s very common on social media to create false profiles based on public figures. The practice isn’t intended as identity theft, but to satirize that person. For example, there’s a very famous account that’s based on one of Daniel Ortega’s sons, but isn’t really him. That kind of false account could be classified under the ambiguous category of identity theft,” Diaz highlighted.
In addition, the “Gag Law” introduces concepts such as “extolling crime”. This, in Navarro’s opinion, could be applied to journalists’ coverage of the regime’s political prisoners. “Everyone knows the abusive way they’ve been detained. They know that these prisoners have been abducted and held for months. They know that the trials have been absolutely irregular and abusive.” That’s “probably what the government is going to want to silence,” Navarro explained.
Punishing those who leak information
The proposed law also aims to spread terror among “the State employees” and “Sandinista militants”. It establishes punishment for those who leak information or screenshots of conversations. “The regime is convinced that the leaks are coming from WhatsApp groups. Such group chats are organized by the neighborhood Sandinista parties, the Sandinista Leadership Councils, and in all the public institutions. They believe the leaks are coming from there,” Navarro emphasized.
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Both Navarro and Diaz indicated: “the regime wants to boast” that they’re capable of controlling the information circulating on the internet. In practice, however, it’s something they can’t do. “Everyone knows applications like WhatsApp, and others used for sending information securely, are worldwide open communications mechanisms. I don’t believe they can silence everything that it occurs to them to hush up,” Navarro declared.
For his part, Manuel Diaz pointed out obstacles to the law’s procedures, such as extraditing Nicaraguans accused of cybercrimes. That’s something the Nicaraguan government can’t do alone; there must be collaboration from other countries. In this case, only Cuba and Venezuela “might consider extraditing someone for one of the articles established in this law. All other countries in the world have a very clear vision of what’s happening in Nicaragua,” he stressed.
“We’ll continue working rigorously”
Maria Lilly Delgado said that despite this proposed law, “independent journalism is going to continue our rigorous work.” She emphasized that international correspondents like herself, “look for balanced information, although it’s very difficult in Nicaragua. There’s no access to information in Nicaragua. The information is centralized in one person. However, the challenge will continue being what it’s been up until now: look for the other side,” she explained.
Alvaro Navarro agreed: “We’re going to continue doing our work.” The regime “is placing their bets on us falling silent”. However, doing so “would be like accepting that we’ve committed some offense.” All we’ve done is: “inform the population” according to what’s established in the Nicaraguan Constitution. “We’re not going to stop doing our work.”