The flag of Nicaragua

By Natalie Johnson


            The Constitution of Nicaragua guarantees freedom of speech and of the press, but the country is not without problems in those areas, especially when it comes to freedom of the press. For example, the Constitution states that the people have the right to accurate information, but that leaves open a loophole in which the government can deem information inaccurate and thus censor it. This is particularly a problem when it comes to government criticism, and many have accused the government of exploiting this loophole, and violating the Constitution. As of 2015, Reporters Without Borders ranks Nicaragua as number 74 out of 180 countries in terms of free press issues, a ranking which has gone down from 71 in 2014.

Historical Background

            In 1522, the Spanish launched a military expedition on Nicaragua, led by Gil González Dávila. During the first year of this first expedition, González was successful in spreading the Roman Catholic religion to many natives. He did, however, fall short of his conquest goals when he was driven out of the country by an army of 3,000 natives. In 1524, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba led a new conquest effort. He was quick to establish the first Spanish settlement in the area, and gave the country the name, Nicaragua. During this early colonial period, Spain paid little attention to Nicaragua, as they were focused on their quest for riches in other areas of Central and South America. In fact, Nicaragua lost most of its native population due to the Spanish enslaving them and sending them to Peru to work in the mines.

The seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries marked turbulent times for Nicaragua. In the 1600s, the Caribbean coastal towns were under constant attack by pirates, along with British efforts to expand their Caribbean control westward into Nicaraguan territory. In the early 1700s, the War of Spanish Succession saw a regime change in Spain, and with that came new policies involving trade. The new regime favored a free-trade system, which was favored by Nicaraguan merchants, but unpopular among wealthy landowners. The group of merchants became known as liberals, while the landowner group became known as conservatives. The rise of these two factions, and their opposing ideals would lead to turmoil in the future.

Nicaragua formally declared independence in 1838, and the struggle between conservatives and liberals began to heighten. Between 1858 and 1909, power pivoted between the two groups, often accompanied by violence. With increasing pressure from liberals, and the possibility of a canal project in the making, the United States entered the political game in Nicaragua, aiming to protect conservative control of the country. “It was as a result of such interventions by the U.S. that the Sandino rebellion of 1927-1933 took place,” (Baracco) and was the beginning of the rise of the Sandinista National Liberation Front.

The Sandinista revolution began in 1978, in opposition to the U.S.-backed Somoza regime. Complaints against the regime ranged from corruption, to human rights violations, to economic disparity and instability. “In the 1970s, the economic role of the Somoza family itself began to affect profoundly the lives and interests of all Nicaraguans. The economic power of the Somozas and the growing economic and political instability of the 1970s ultimately arrested the unification of the capitalist class. Key elements among the nation’s major investors in the end turned against the regime and some became reformers or revolutionaries.” (Booth) During the Sandinista revolution, a political scandal arose involving the Reagan Administration in the U.S. In what became known at the Iran-Contra Affair, senior officials of the administration sold arms to Iran, then funneled the funds from those sales to the Contra Army in Nicaragua to aid in the battle against the Sandinistas. Despite the efforts of the U.S., the Contras, and the Somoza regime, the Sandinistas prevailed. Today, long sitting Sandinista President Daniel Ortega still runs the country, with only few periods since the 1980s in which he was replaced in elections.

Free Speech

            Free speech is relatively safe and protected in Nicaragua, however, fear of violent retaliation has kept people silent during some historical periods. During the Somoza regime, just before the Sandinista revolution, “No one could risk showing public sympathy for the guerrillas, who, after all, were advocating nothing less than the violent destruction of the country’s entire political and economic structure.” (Kinzer) The country walked on eggshells during this period, and Somoza’s image as a violent dictator, and the National Guard his muscle, kept people in fear. Somoza, after all, was rumored to have dumped the bodies of his rivals in the crater of the Masaya volcano. (Kinzer)

Free Press

            Freedom of the press has a much more rocky presence in Nicaragua, both historically and currently. “The constitution provides for freedom of the press, but in practice the government acts to restrict it,” and “The government uses economic means to exert pressure on the media” (Freedom House). Nicaraguan journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorro was well known for his newspaper, La Prensa, in which he routinely criticized the Somoza regime. In 1977, one year before the explosion of the Sandinista revolution, Chamorro was gunned down in the streets by masked gunmen while he was on his way to work. It was widely assumed that Somoza was responsible for his death. Following the revolution, the Sandinistas relied on a newspaper called Barricada to help spread the rally call in favor of them. “Six days after the ragtag Sandinista armies vanquished the last pockets of Somocista resistance… the first four-page Barricada broadsheet began to circulate through whatever channels were available in the chaotic transitional environment” (Jones). However, free press violations were not restricted to the Somoza regime. After the Sandinistas took power in 1979, their popularity began to falter. In 1981, La Prensa conducted a survey among 900 Nicaraguans in urban areas, to determine how they felt the revolution benefited them. The results showed that only 36 percent felt they benefited from the new Sandinista junta, despite the fact that more than half still supported the FSLN. “Though these survey results were mixed, the government forbade their publication in La Prensa, which it had now begun to censor regularly and to close down occasionally.” (Leiken)

The climate for free press currently in Nicaragua is tightening, with many arguing that freedom to information is becoming, more and more, less certain. The political party that was once successful in overthrowing a dictator, is, as it seems, turning dictatorial themselves. As of 2014, the Nicaraguan National Assembly approved constitutional changes that not only extends President Daniel Ortega’s power to all three branches of government, but also now allows the president to run for reelection indefinitely. “The articles concerning freedom of the press and information were not amended. However, freedom of the press and information continue to be the same or worse. The secrecy of the Executive Branch continues to be absolute, no information or statement is offered to the few independent or semi-independent media, it being only the official media that receive news and statements from officials” (Inter American Press Association). To make matters worse, the Ortega family owns much of the media outlets in the country, and continues to acquire more. “The Nicaraguan leader and his wife have defined private news media as direct political challengers and have sought to marginalize their influence.” (Lauría)

Critical Comparison

            When it comes to free speech and free press, both the U.S. and Nicaragua have had their challenges. While the U.S. has faced more free speech issues than Nicaragua, such as how to handle hate speech and student speech, Nicaragua continues to struggle with free press issues. It has long been established in the U.S., that freedom of the press is an essential part of democracy, capable of acting as a fourth check on the government in their capacity to examine and criticize the government and their representatives. For example, in Near v. Minnesota, the Supreme Court held that the injunction of a newspaper based on criticism and accusations against public officials was in violation of the First Amendment. And in New York Times v United States, the Supreme Court held that the publication of the Pentagon Papers was within the paper’s rights, which allowed for amazing transparency of government actions. In Nicaragua however, the government can shut down a newspaper if it deems the information published to be inaccurate. Furthermore, the fact that the Ortega family owns and controls so many of the media outlets in the country means that the president can essentially control what information is made available to journalists and the public.


            The United States and Nicaragua have both had issues concerning freedom of press, but while the U.S. has established strict scrutiny concerning freedom of expression, Nicaragua faces more restriction in the future. With the newly amended Constitution of Nicaragua extending Ortega’s power to all branches of government, it seems that challenging any future constraints on the press will be even more difficult, as Ortega now controls the judicial branch as well. Things are looking bleak for freedom of the press in Nicaragua.






Baracco, Luciano. Nicaragua: The Imagining of a Nation from Nineteenth   Century Liberals to Twentieth Century Sandinistas. New York. Algora Publishing. 2005. Print.


Booth, John A. The End and the Beginning: The Nicaraguan Revolution. Boulder. Westview Press, Inc. 1982. Print.


Freedom House. Freedom of the Press: Nicaragua. 2012. Web. 5 April 2015.


Jones, Adam. Beyond the Barricades: Nicaragua and the Struggle for the Sandinista Press 1979-1998. Center for International Studies Ohio University. 2002. Print.


Inter American Press Association. Assembly: 2014 – Midyear Meeting – Bridgetown, Barbados, Report. 2014. Web. 6 April 2015.


Kinzer, Stephen. Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua. New York. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1991. Print.


Lauría, Carlos and Simon, Joel. Nicaragua Special Report: Daniel Ortega’s Media War. Committee to Protect Journalists. 2009. Web. 5 April 2015.


Leiken, Robert S. Why Nicaragua Vanished: A Story of Reporters and Revolutionaries. Lanham. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2003. Print.


Merrill, Tim. Nicaragua: A Country Study. 1993. Web. 5 April 2015.


Reporters Without Boarders. 2015 World Press Freedom Index. 2015. Web. 5 April 2015.


This article was last updated on April 30, 2015






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