On February 8, the Nicaraguan government lifted the ban on imported newsprint to the country’s best known newspaper company, La Prensa, after an 18-month blockade. The stranglehold had threatened to leave the country with no newspapers. The editors of La Prensa claimed that newsprint and other supplies were held up in customs because of the company’s coverage of the anti-government protests in 2018.
The disdain for the government stems back to when, after his election win in 2007, Daniel Ortega pocketed $500 million of Venezuelan aid and used it to buy control over several powerful Nicaraguan news sources. He used bribery tactics to gain the trust of big businesses and stack the government with loyalists to his political party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). By turning his party into the nation’s economic empire and having the Supreme Court stacked with people to do his bidding, he ensured he would maintain power. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that Ortega could be re-elected. Then, in 2014, the Nicaraguan National Assembly altered the Constitution to allow for indefinite reelection.
As President, Ortega ran a somewhat Orwellian government, referencing 1984, a book about a government that relies heavily on propaganda to manipulate people in a dystopian society. Daniel Ortega’s wife is the Vice President and the couple’s faces are plastered on billboards throughout the city alongside phrases intended to evoke strong nationalist pride. A significant decrease in aid from Venezuela, coupled with a mismanagement of current funds led to the crumbling of the government’s act of prosperity and stability. In desperate need of funding, the Nicaraguan government announced cuts to Social Security.
In 2018, there were massive demonstrations throughout the country in protest of Daniel Ortega and the growing abuse of power by the Nicaraguan government. At this point, the Nicaraguan government relied less on propaganda and more on brute force. The protests of the people were met with extreme violence as the Nicaraguan government essentially declared war on any dissenters. In total, over 326 people were killed in the protests, mostly by Nicaraguan police officers. Thousands of others were arrested for political purposes and any sense of dissent was immediately quashed without regard for humanity. Nicaraguan police officers laid siege, cutting off electricity and water, to a group of women and priests in a church who were committed to a hunger strike to protest their loved ones being imprisoned. The strike ended when the women surrendered in order to save the life of a priest who was dying due to their poor living conditions.
The media coverage during and immediately after the protests reported the corruption of the government and the violent action taken by Ortega’s parapolice and police forces. After the protests, Ortega led a crackdown on independent media, raiding news companies and imprisoning journalists. Wanting to silence the media further, Nicaragua held up newsprint and other supplies in customs as retaliation for news reports on the brutality of the protests. The lack of newsprint led La Prensa to condense their paper down to eight pages, down from the usual 36 pages. Another major newspaper, El Nuevo Diario, shut down in Fall 2018, complaining that the Nicaraguan government blocked its imports of newsprint.
It is unclear why the Nicaraguan government lifted the newsprint blockade after a year and a half, but it seems to be a step in the right direction for the increasingly authoritarian nation. The La Prensa headline read “The newsprint has been liberated!” after the ban was lifted. The impact of the policy change helps minimize the risk of the country losing out on all forms of independent newspaper sources. In January 2019, La Prensa published a blank front page with only the headline: “Have you imagined living without information?” Jaime Chamorro, the director of La Prensa, stated that he didn’t know why the President chose to lift the ban, but that he had heard the decision came from Rosario Murillo. Murillo is the wife of Ortega and the country’s vice president.
However, even with the restoration of the newsprint, La Prensa faces numerous challenges. Since the political turmoil from 2018, the economy has plummeted and confidence in the government is still extremely low. La Prensa’s newsroom had 100 journalists in April 2018, and now only has 25 journalists to work on its two newspapers.
Despite the continued challenges that face independent news sources in Nicaragua, lifting the ban on imported newsprint is an important step for the country to move toward a government that is more representative of who it serves. It will be interesting to see whether the national economy recovers from the political turmoil of the last couple years and how the increased independent news affects the economic development in Nicaragua. It is possible that pressure from the media will contribute to Ortega making decisions more beneficial for Nicaraguan people if he wishes to keep his power in the country.
Belli, Gioconda. “How Daniel Ortega Became a Tyrant.” Foreign Affairs, Foreign Affairs Magazine, 31 Oct. 2019, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/nicaragua/2018-08-24/how-daniel-ortega-became-tyrant.
Ismael López Ocampo, Mary Beth Sheridan. “Nicaragua Lifts Newsprint Ban on Embattled La Prensa Newspaper.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 8 Feb. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/world/nicaragua-lifts-newsprint-ban-on-embattled-la-prensa-newspaper/2020/02/08/6fbb67ca-4a8f-11ea-8a1f-de1597be6cbc_story.html.
Ismael Lopez Ocampo, Mary Beth Sheridan. “With Journalists Jailed and Activists in Hiding, Nicaragua Enters a New ‘Reign of Fear’.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 2 Jan. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/with-journalists-jailed-and-activists-in-hiding-nicaragua-enters-a-new-reign-of-fear/2019/01/01/a0222942-0a0f-11e9-8942-0ef442e59094_story.html.
Robles, Frances, and Cesar Rodriguez. “Nicaragua Has a Simple Message for Protesters: Don’t.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Dec. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/12/26/world/americas/nicaragua-ortega-protests.html.