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Nicaragua10 October 2008

Political and judicial harassment of NGOs threatens freedom of expression and association

Reporters Without Borders strongly condemns a newly-launched interior ministry investigation into 17 non-governmental organisations for alleged “embezzlement” and “money-laundering” and fears it could jeopardize the right to inform and the right of association, two basic constitutional rights.

The probe is focused above all on the Centre for Investigation and Communication (CINCO), headed by journalist and video programme maker Carlos Fernando Chamorro, and the Autonomous Women’s Movement (MAM), headed by journalist Sofía Montenegro, who have been the target of a smear campaign by close allies of President Daniel Ortega.

They have already been questioned by the prosecutor’s office, which threatened to jail them on 8 October if they do not respond to further summonses for questioning.

“The administrative and judicial harassment of CINCO and MAM is an outrage,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Aside from the fact that the courts are being used to settle political scores, the very principle of this investigation - which is mainly targeted at NGOs dedicated to communication, human rights and women’s rights - poses a threat to the role of civil society as an arena for democratic debate.

“These proceedings come in the wake of what some have called a ‘black campaign,’ a campaign to smear the reputations of Montenegro and Chamorro, two former members of the Sandinista movement, by means of degrading accusations that are without foundation. Such polarisation and ‘media war’ methods - which are being seen in other Latin American countries as well - pose a major threat to the physical safety of those publicly singled out as enemies of the nation.”

The press freedom organisation added: “President Ortega, who is the guarantor of constitutional rights, must put an end to this campaign and to its consequences in the administrative and judicial domains.”

Chamorro was previously the target of a campaign of personal attacks after he accused the leadership of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) of involvement in a case of extortion. No action was taken on his allegations.

“At the time, my photo was being shown every day on Canal 4, the pro-government TV station, where I was branded as a gangster, a terrorist, a drug trafficker or a killer of peasants,” Chamorro told Reporters Without Borders. “But the courts acknowledged at the time that I had not done anything wrong. The same TV methods resumed in May and have continued until now, this time with me being labeled as a CIA agent and agent of imperialism in allusion to the fact that CINCO received 20,000 dollars from USAID this year, which is barely 1 per cent of our budget.”

Last month, the First Lady, Rosario Murillo, publicly accused CINCO, MAM and Oxfam-UK - which supervises a cooperation accord with CINCO and MAM - of “hatching a plan to destabilise the government.” It was immediately thereafter that the interior ministry launched its probe into CINCO and MAM and 15 other Nicaraguan NGOs.

Chamorro became the first person to appear before a prosecutor as part of the investigation on 2 October, when he was questioned for five hours. Montenegro and three other women - Juanita Jiménez, Patricia Orozco and Ana Maria Pizarro - were questioned on 7 and 8 October.

These women were already the target of a prosecution that was brought shortly after President Ortega’s January 2007 inauguration against some 10 leading members of women’s rights organisations who had been speaking out publicly since the previous year against the repeal of a law allowing abortion on medical grounds.

The interior ministry website claims that the 17 NGOs lack legal status because they are not formally registered as NGOs with the ministry. Officially, the embezzlement and money-laundering suspicions stem from some 58 financial accords - in some cases worth more than 400,000 dollars - with other NGOs that are registered. The registered NGOs have already been fined and could now lose their legal status.

The requests which Reporters Without Borders has addressed to the authorities - including interior minister Isabel Morales Mazún - for an explanation have so far not received a reply.

The legal status of two opposition parties, the left-wing Movement for Sandinista Renewal and the right-wing Conservative Party, was rescinded in May of this year. “It was amid this very great political and media tension that the ‘black campaign’ resumed,” Chamorro said. “Against me but also against other well-known people such as Sofía Montenegro, because she is campaigning for the decriminalization of abortion.”

Chamorro continued: “The president’s wife, Rosario Murillo, said especially derogatory things about Sofía Montenegro in the weekly El 19, accusing her, for example of being a murderer because she is the sister of National Guard officer who was a recognised torturer during the Anastasio Somoza dictatorship. Yet Sofía Montenegro used to be an active member of the FSLN!”

Since those comments by the First Lady, Montenegro has been the target of many threats and attempts to intimidate her.

Chamorro added: “Aside from the proceedings initiated against us, the government is planning a major overhaul of the international cooperation law with the aim of limiting the approximately 4,500 NGOs to a basic assistance role.”

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