On Tuesday, October 27, the Nicaraguan National Assembly, dominated by the Sandinista party machine, approved the “Special Cybercrimes Law”. The law is better known as the “Gag Law”.
It’s declared purpose is to protect public freedoms and regulate new technologies and cyberspace. In reality, though, it fabricates new criminal charges for news and information content, with a limitless reach.
The law contradicts Nicaraguans’ constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of information and expression. Article 68 of Nicaragua’s Magna Carta specifically and unquestionably prohibits “prior censorship”. Disregarding this, the law establishes new mechanism of state censorship through the presumed crime of “false information”.
In Article 30 of the Cybercrimes Law, the Government grants itself authority to determine what comprises “false or distorted information”. It also determines what news produces: “alarm, fear or anxiety among the population, a group or individual, and their family.” The criminal penalty for this is “two to four years in prison” and a hefty fine. Thus, a secretive regime gains the right to capriciously and ambiguously characterize “false information” at its own discretion. This same regime has already criminalized the exercise of professional journalism.
Article 30 also establishes criminal penalties for “false and/or distorted information that damages a person’s or family’s honor, prestige or reputation.” That can now be punished with “one to three years in prison”. The article is in direct contradiction to changes made to Nicaragua’s Penal Code in 2008. At that time, the chapter on “Crimes against Honor” was amended to eliminate jail sentences for libel and slander.
Finally, Article 30 of the new law increases the penalty for yet another ambiguous category. Specifically, for disseminating “false and/or distorted information that incites hate and violence, endangers economic stability, public health or national security.” The penalty for that is now three to five years in jail.
This law’s immediate predecessor was the trial launched nearly two years ago against journalists Miguel Mora and Lucia Pineda. These television journalists were put on trial, found guilty and tortured in jail for six months. Their supposed crimes were: “inciting hatred” and “provocation”.
However, this law extends the threat still further. It threatens citizens using social media, plus public servants and independent journalists who divulge news and information without government permission.
Let’s look at an example. How could “false information that endangers public health” be typified? Under parameters of public transparency, or those of a regime that denied the existence of Covid and furthered its spread? This regime now alleges only 154 deaths from COVID-19, when the express burials, and the official mortality statistics show otherwise. The latter indicate over 7,000 deaths, making Nicaragua the Central American country with the highest number of deaths from COVID-19.
The same could be said regarding “information that endangers economic stability”. The statistics and social indicators of poverty have been distorted by the Central Bank itself.
Hence, the law is a serious threat to citizens and journalists. Nonetheless, this punitive law arrives too late to impede the spread of news, information and critical opinions. These have already vanquished the monologues of Vice President Rosario Murillo which air daily on the official media.
In March 2007, when Ortega had been president for just three months, Murillo inaugurated her strategy of so-called “uncontaminated information”. She defined this as the official truth in its purest form. Pure because it didn’t have to be questioned or investigated by the independent press. Or subjected to citizens’ denunciations or critical opinions.
That model was launched by persecuting the independent media and journalists. This persecution involved intimidation campaigns, trials and lynching. It totally closed off independent media’s access to public information. From the first day of their regime, Ortega and Murillo refused to respond to uncomfortable questions from the press. Instead, they imposed a monologue through their emporium of State-Party-Family media.
Ortega and Murillo’s new Dark Code of censorship is a product of the failure of that ostentatious media apparatus. It’s the failure of an empire financed through corrupt manipulation of Venezuela’s billions in foreign aid. I refer here to the television channels the Ortega family manages as private companies: Channels 4, 8, and 13. I also refer to the channels they control directly or indirectly, including official State Channel 6 and private Channel 2. Added to these are dozens of radio stations, plus the regime’s laboratories housing thousands of internet trolls. These, too, have failed in the battle for the truth.
The model has failed. Despite the repression and the persecution, they could never impose censorship or self-censorship on the independent press. They couldn’t silence the citizens or the prophetic voices of the Church, such as Bishop Silvio Baez, now in exile. They couldn’t silence the public servants, who leaked the most conclusive documents and proof of the regime’s corruption. At the hour of repression and assassination, they’ve never been able to silence the mothers’ demands for truth and justice. Nor that of the victims’ families.
This regime essentially collapsed in April 2018. Through its negligent management of the pandemic, it lost the little credibility left among party members. Thirteen years after Murillo launched her failed strategy, they now impose a law aiming to control thousands of social media users.
It’s a desperate blow, and perhaps it’s the last. A tottering dictatorship now attempts to end the bond between journalists’ freedom of the press and citizens’ free expression.
I hold the absolute conviction that the independent press will maintain intact their professional rigor. I’m convinced they will make evident the regime’s lie. Meanwhile, the citizens will strike the final blow. The defense of free expression, potentiated by the social media networks, will give birth to free mobilization and bury the police state.
If history someday recalls Ortega it will be for his Law 840, the Ortega-Wang law for the interoceanic canal. That law represented the greatest sellout in nation´s history. Murillo will perhaps be remembered only for her hate-filled discourse, and for her April 2018 order: “We’re going in with everything”. And finally, this 21st century Dark Code that attempts to impose official lies is destined for failure.