Democracy and rights
The rule of law has been gradually eroded in Nicaragua, which today is one of the least democratic countries in Latin America. Power has gradually been concentrated on the president, who has increasingly restricted the scope for critics and opponents. In the footsteps of the mass protests that erupted in the spring of 2018, the repression worsened considerably.
In international rankings of political and civil liberties, Nicaragua raged extensively in 2018. Since then, violence has been waged against protesters, many in the protest movement, imprisoned and others subjected to harassment and attacks. Over 300 people were killed during a few months of unrest and more than 500 were jailed. In 2019, some concessions were made and political prisoners began to be released (see further Current policy).
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On the list of Economist Intelligence Units, Nicaragua now ranks among “authoritarian regimes”, the worst of four categories. The only other countries in Latin America that count there are Cuba and Venezuela. At Freedom House, Abbreviated as NIC by Abbreviationfinder, Nicaragua has been moved from the “partly free” category to “not free” countries.
In Transparency International’s corruption index, the country is ranked 161 out of 180 countries – again, only Venezuela and Haiti are ranked worse in the Western Hemisphere (the entire list is here). Nicaragua’s investment has deteriorated over a number of years due to the increasing concentration of power.
President Daniel Ortega controls most of the democratic institutions and is thus accused of curtailing their independence and efficiency. Ortega has also circumvented civil rights, which has contributed to the extensive protests in which many former Sandinist supporters also participate.
The criticism has grown against how power has gradually been concentrated to the party and to Ortega’s own family. His wife Rosario Murillo was even before she became vice president in 2017, including the president’s spokesperson and head of a communications council, which gave her control over state advertising in the media. She is also responsible for the so-called civil power councils (see Political system) and has a central role in government appointments, official events and in the management of natural disasters. Many people in Nicaragua talk about a new family dynasty: four members of the Ortega family are advisers to the president. One son is a minister and another led negotiations with the Chinese company, which is scheduled to build a canal through Nicaragua (see Modern History).
Freedom of expression and media
According to the constitution, freedom of speech and printing exist, but both the liberal governments 1990-2006 and the current Sandin government have tried in various ways to control the media. The Sandinists have tried to control the media reporting, inter alia, by giving interviews only to government-run media, not infrequently owned by President Ortega’s family. Information that should be public is not always disclosed to opposition media.
In connection with the protests in 2018, the government acted directly against media freedom, when several independent TV channels reporting on the unrest were shut down. A journalist was also shot to death during a Facebook broadcast. Dozens of journalists were injured during the protests. Over 50 fled abroad and others were arrested. Later in the year, the police raided independent media organizations and seized equipment. The owners were arrested and charged with terrorist offenses, even though they were released a few months later. The authorities have also actively opposed independent media. In September 2019, one of the country’s major newspapers, Nuevo Diario, closed, citing that the regime made it economically, technically and logistically impossible to continue publishing the magazine.
Also during Ortega’s re-election campaign in 2016, there were many attacks on representatives of independent or government-critical media. Reporters who monitor demonstrations are often regarded as participants and thus risk being exposed to the power of order. Journalists are also exposed to direct-targeted dirt-throwing campaigns and death threats.
In Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, Nicaragua 2020 has fallen to 117th place (see list here). It is a major deterioration in a couple of years but still better than several other countries in the region where deadly violence is directed more towards journalists. Murder of journalists is one of the rarities in Nicaragua, although two journalists were murdered in 2004 because of their professional practice.
Radio and TV are the media that reach most people. Since Ortega came to power, he and his family have purchased several TV stations.
There are no restrictions on access to the internet, but several non-profit organizations say the government is monitoring their correspondence via email.
Judicial system and legal security
The judiciary is formally independent, but in practice strongly politicized. The judges are appointed on party political grounds. Since the 2011 elections, the FSLN Government Party has its own majority in the National Assembly and thus full control over the appointment of judges in the Supreme Court and the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE). Another example of politicization is the Supreme Court’s decision in 2009 to annul the constitutional clause that prevented the president from serving two terms in office (see Political system).
The courts are also characterized by corruption, lack of resources and inefficiency. Politicians and other influential people can easily influence the courts through bribes or promises of gene services and favors. There is a lack of public defenders, even though all the defendants are entitled to one. Few crimes lead to convictions. According to Nicaraguan human rights organizations, impunity is particularly widespread when it comes to crimes against women.
The police and the military are the institutions for which the residents have traditionally had the greatest confidence. Despite the low wages of the police, corruption is not as widespread here as in many other Latin American countries. In addition, Nicaragua has not been hit as hard as especially the neighboring countries in the north by gang crime and drug smuggling. However, the events of 2018 have drastically altered many citizens’ image of the security forces, due to the extensive violence against protesters.
There are also reports that police at the local level have become less independent due to cooperation with the Citizens Council (see Political system). Conditions in prisons are difficult and problems with overcrowding and lack of clean drinking water, food and medicines are common.