Undertones: Nicaragua's “sham” elections have cold shower effect on media

Daniel Ortega (right), President, and Rosario Murillo (left), his wife and Vice-President of Nicaragua. Photo by Ricardo Patiño/Wikimedia commons.

There are two competing narratives underlying stories about Nicaragua's elections.

For Nicaragua's government and allies, Daniel Ortega's recent electoral victory has consolidated the narrative of anti-imperialism. For US and European governments and pro-democracy observers, the elections have been a sham.

Complicating these narratives, however, is the fact that Nicaragua's own press is in shambles. There are also Ortega-friendly foreign cheerleaders who promote pro-Ortega narratives for their own purposes.

State authorities have cut access to foreign journalists, raided national media offices, and detained opponents. Media sources and journalists are afraid to speak and report. Journalists, in Nicaragua or in exile, practice self-censorship, with propaganda channels dominating attention and little independent oversight over public matters.

On Sunday, November 7, Daniel Ortega won a fourth consecutive term as president of Nicaragua with 75% of the vote, but with an average of 81% abstentionism, according to independent data. Since Ortega returned to power in 2007, nearly 30 years after the Sandinista Revolution, his grip on power has  intensified. Journalists — many of whom are in exile — have increasingly faced obstacles to reporting, and many will no longer sign their stories out of fear of repercussions. News media's access to information sources in Nicaragua is functionally clandestine.

Competing narratives

“There is no press freedom”

For journalists, the overarching narrative is that “There is no press freedom in Nicaragua.” Journalists worry that press freedom is limited or nonexistent in Nicaragua due to state repression. In August 2021, 80 attacks were reported against media workers. In August, the offices of the Nicaraguan daily La Prensa were raided by the police and their print edition stopped. Their general manager Juan Lorenzo Holmann is in jail.

For the media this threat is unequivocal. “It’s a state of terror” in Nicaragua, says high-profile Nicaraguan journalist Carlos F. Chamorro in a CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour, which she shared on her Facebook page. Chamorro explains how sources are not willing to give their name on the record as political and social leaders are jailed or forced into exile. Explore that story here.

“People are talking without giving names. Almost all journalists are quoting anonymous sources and the media is publishing without the name of the journalist. There is no signature, no name at the end. It's been bad for a while, but it may become worse because now [the government] can claim that they are legitimate,” our researcher on Nicaragua explains.*

Journalists from independent media sources, such as ConfidencialNicaragua InvestigaDivergentes, and La Prensa, have stopped signing their stories.

On the other side of the spectrum, the discourse is vastly different.

“Any criticism is a smear campaign”

Any negative news about Nicaragua's government is part of an unfair campaign to discredit its representatives and their achievements, according to Nicaraguan ambassadors to the OAS, United Nations’ Human Rights Council, and Community of Latin American and Caribbean countries (CELAC). This narrative, which we have summarized as “Any criticism of the Ortega administration is part of a smear campaign against the government,” serves as a pro-government attempt to reject debate or the opposition.

This narrative seeps into the media in ways often difficult to read, and, sometimes painfully blunt.

On the blunt side, a recently victorious Daniel Ortega insulted his political opponents, many of whom were detained earlier this year. This follows the narrative that “members of the opposition are traitors to the fatherland.” More analysis here.

But there are less obvious stories. In a video by the pro-socialist Bolivian media outlet Kawsachun, shared on their Twitter account and aimed at an English-speaking audience, young scholars from the United States speak about a visit to Nicaragua to witness firsthand the “socialist revolution.” These scholars are allowed to visit Nicaragua and witness the electoral process, while international journalists from the US, Spain, and other international outlets are forbidden to enter the country.

By allowing only handpicked witnesses into the country, the government aims to control the narrative and present the elections as a success, especially after Nicaragua’s 2018 anti-government protests and subsequent state massacre of students. More analysis here.

*Researchers are kept anonymous to protect their safety.

Undertones is the Civic Media Observatory's newsletter, created collaboratively by the Observatory's researchers, coordinating editors, and project writer. Find out more about our missionmethodology, and publicly available data

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