MEXICO CITY -- Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega’s government has closed seven radio stations owned by the Roman Catholic church this week, as well as two other outlets serving the largely rural northern area with a history of opposition to his Sandinista National Liberation Front party.
Experts say the latest crackdown aims to silence any remaining voices of dissent before Nicaragua holds local elections in November, much like Ortega’s arrest of the leading potential opposition candidates before last year’s presidential election. But observers elsewhere in Central America worry that Ortega’s unchecked repression has emboldened other leaders who have shown little tolerance for dissenting voices.
Last Friday, Guatemala arrested a prominent journalist whose newspaper specializes in corruption investigations, including against current President Alejandro Giammattei. After his first appearance before a judge Wednesday on money laundering and extortion charges, José Rubén Zamora said it was a “set-up” carried out by the president and attorney general.
Zamora’s arrest followed persecution of Guatemalan judges and prosecutors specially in corruption cases, a number of whom have been driven into exile.
In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele regularly attacks nongovernmental organizations that criticize his government’s measures, most recently a more than four-month state of exception that suspended fundamental rights during which authorities have arrested more than 40,000 people for alleged gang connections.
The arrests have been popular in El Salvador, but criticized by civil rights organizations because many have occurred without investigation and due process.
Ana María Méndez Dardón, Central America director for the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group, said they were concerned by how “the region has suffered a widespread backlash from powerful pro-impunity sectors and authoritarian leaders, and how Nicaragua has become, let’s say, a model.”
She said Giammattei and Bukele — both from other parts of the ideological spectrum — had taken pages from Ortega’s “playbook” in order to concentrate power.
In Matagalpa on Thursday, blue-uniformed police surrounded the diocese offices and bishop's residence. Bishop Rolando Álvarez, an outspoken government critic, stood in the street ringed by priests praying as police cordoned off the area in the background.
That followed the seizure of the church’s radio stations in the area on Monday. Police cut the power and occupied the residence of a parish priest in Sebaco. Rev. Uriel Vallejos and several others remained holed up inside Thursday.
Neither the Nicaraguan government nor the Vatican have commented publicly on the situation.
Matagalpa is a coffee and cattle producing province about 80 miles north of Managua. In the 1980s, it was also a center of the right-wing “Contra” fighters against Ortega’s first Sandinista government after the revolution.
Among the other outlets closed this week there were feminist communitarian radio station Radio Vos and television station RB3, both serving largely rural populations.
“They suspended our license with technical arguments, but we know that it is retaliation for our critical position and our work in defense of women and the formation of community leaders,” said Argentina Olivas, director of Radio Vos. Founded in 2004, the station reaches 13 municipalities in Matagalpa, including places no other outlet does. It transmits programs supporting women’s development and training for young journalists.
The station on Monday had aired a statement in support of the priest surrounded in Sebaco.
Television station RB3 transmits from Rio Blanco. Station founder and director David Mendoza cried after announcing to viewers that the station was being shut down after 18 years in operation.
“This is really hard. We do independent journalism with a social profile,” Mendoza said later. “This was the channel of help and hope for the people.”
After the massive street protests in April 2018 that were violently put down by the government, Mendoza said the government pulled their advertising. He received threats and was harassed by police, but the station continued.
While much of the population in the area is anti-Sandinista, Ortega’s party won local elections in Rio Blanco in 2017 in what the opposition called a fraud.
“They are going for total control,” Mendoza said.
Oscar René Vargas, a political analyst forced to flee Nicaragua, said the government “seeks to silence all media outlets possible.” Dozens of journalists have been forced into exile. Last month, Nicaragua’s main daily La Prensa announced that its staff had all left the country, but they would continue to publish online. Police had occupied the newspaper’s offices last August.
Nicaragua’s government has also shut down some 1,000 non-governmental organizations this year.
Ortega has maintained that the April 2018 protests were an attempt to oust him that received foreign support. The government clamped down on organizations receiving any international support. Last month, the government expelled nuns from Mother Teresa’s charity.
Wednesday night, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols criticized Ortega and first lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo via Twitter: “Ortega-Murillo’s brutal assault on Catholic clergy, radio facilities and community members in Sebaco is another blow to religious freedom in Nicaragua as well as to the freedom of expression. How can men and women in uniform – many of them people of faith - carry out such orders?”
The U.S. government has sanctioned a number of officials in Ortega’s inner circle and last month targeted prosecutors and judges involved in the trials against opposition members this year, but Ortega’s behavior has not changed.
The Biden administration has sanctioned officials in Guatemala and El Salvador too, alleging corruption or that they're undermining democracy, but also without effect.
Vargas said it is part of Ortega’s ongoing campaign. “Ortega continues his strategy of power or death,” Vargas said. “He will do anything to hold onto power through repression at all levels: religious, political, the press, the NGOs, the business people.”
The Roman Catholic church had been under increasing pressure in Nicaragua. The government expelled the Vatican’s top diplomat in March.
Some bishops have criticized the government’s actions since the 2018 protests and had to leave. After the church initially tried to mediate peace between protesters and the government, Ortega accused them supporting those who wanted to remove him, calling them “terrorists” and “demons in robes.”
On Thursday, Bishop Álvarez knelt on the sidewalk outside his residence in front of armed police. As officers tried to clear onlookers and parishioners, including some who had also knelt, Álvarez walked at them determinedly with a large crucifix held out in front him.
At one point he said, “kneeling only before God.”
AP writer Christopher Sherman contributed to this report.