Nicaragua Government Responds to Protests with Force, Media Censorship

On April 21, Nicaraguan journalist Angel Gahona stood among protesters in the coastal town of Bluefields to report for a Facebook Live broadcast. He approached the town’s city hall, describing a cash machine that had been damaged during the demonstrations.

Seconds later, a gunshot sounded and Gahona fell to the curb. Protesters nearby screamed and attempted to stop the bleeding but Gahona had already passed.

Gahona was one of the dozens of people killed in recent anti-government protests in Nicaragua.  State officials have mainly responded with force and media censorship in an attempt to quell future demonstrations.

While the Nicaraguan government’s statement on April 20 put the official death toll at 10, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights reported 43 deaths while the Permanent Commission on Human Rights reported 58.

According to Reuters, the source of the bullet that killed Gahona has not been determined, but Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa reported that police and other groups fighting the protesters were the only people armed there at the time.

These violent protests against President Daniel Ortega’s government began on April 18 following the proposal of new social security reforms.

According to The Guardian, the reforms included a 5 percent tax to disability pensions and an increase in the amount paid by employees and employers. Critics of the reforms say that the government has used the National Social Security Institute as a source of “petty cash.” As a result, citizens have fallen victim to the institute’s alleged mismanagement.

In response to the protests, police reportedly began using tear gas and live rounds to break up protesters armed with stones. The Guardian also reported that snipers were placed in Nicaragua’s national stadium after protesters pulled down one of the Tree of Life sculptures constructed by Ortega’s wife and Nicaraguan Vice President Rosario Murillo.

The government has also used media censorship to prevent the growth of demonstrations. According to the Associated Press, five independent television stations within the country were ordered off the air a day after protests began.

Channel 15 Director Miguel Mora took to Facebook to criticize the government censorships, calling them a “clear violation of freedom of the press.”

Although Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has since abandoned the proposed reforms, the violent clashes that erupted with police have called into question the level of control and support he has within the country, with many protesters calling for his resignation.

Ortega has been the subject of harsh criticism within the country in recent years. While he has instituted education and health care reforms during his time in office, Ortega, now in his third term, has been criticized for allegedly weakening government institutions, ignoring women’s rights and putting significant limitations on freedom of expression.

In its 2017 report on Nicaragua, Freedom House labeled the country’s press as “partly free,” acknowledging that while some legal protections for journalists exist, the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front has implemented harsh policies on the media. Since gaining power in 2007, the party has consistently favored pro-government news outlets and has denied millions of dollars in advertising to independent and opposition media.

The violent responses by police and government censorships on the media have prompted international organizations and world leaders to call on Ortega’s government to resolve tensions within the country diplomatically.

While addressing a crowd of thousands of people on April 22 in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, Pope Francis, the first Latin-American pope, called for “an end to every form of violence” within Nicaragua.

“I express my solidarity with the country,” Francis said in his address. “And I join bishops in asking that the violence end, pointless spilling of blood is avoided and the underlying issues be resolved peacefully and with a sense of responsibility.”

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