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There is nothing more disappointing (or predictable) than a revolutionary hero turned tyrant. In the great tradition of Lenin and Castro, Ortega promised a new dawn as the leader of the rebel Sandinista National Liberation Front which opposed the Somoza family dictatorship in the late 1970s.
Ortega first took power in 1979 after the overthrow of the regime and served until 1990, first as the head of the Junta of National Reconstruction and then as President. After an absence of 17 years, he was re-elected in 2007 and has remained in office ever since. His rule has become increasingly brutal with crackdowns on his former political allies and opponents to his autocratic methods.
Protests against his regime began in 2014 over plans to grant a concession to a Chinese businessman to build the Nicaragua Canal. Protests were led by local campesinos whose faced the expropriation of their land. Further protests by indigenous people who blamed the government for forest fires flared in 2018 and compounded by opposition to tax increases and benefit reductions.
According to Human Rights Watch, Ortega has dismantled nearly all institutional checks on his presidential power. Opposition parties were banned in advance of the 2021 presidential elections and opponents imprisoned. Civil society has been neutered and an estimated 2,000 NGOs closed down with organisations receiving funding from international sources labelled as foreign agents. Over 100 journalists have been forced into exile in Costa Rica along with an estimated 80,000 asylum seekers.
In elections held in November 2022, the Sandinista Liberation Front announced it had won control of all 153 municipalities in the country. The result was inevitable after the banning of all opposition parties.
“For his critics, the Nicaraguan president has recreated a family dictatorship on the lines of the hated Somozas. His vice-president Rosario Murillo would disagree. She described the recent elections as ‘an exemplary, marvellous formidable day in which we confirm our calling for people.’ But then she is Ortega’s wife,” says Index’s editor-at-large Martin Bright.
On 23 July, popular Nicaraguan stand-up Luis Enrique Calderón has revealed that he was offered money by government officials in return for not ridiculing President Daniel Ortega in upcoming performances organised to celebrate the comedian’s 20 year career. The humorist, renowned for satirising famous personalities and politicians, contacted First Lady Rosario Murillo ahead of the event to gain their support for the act. Yet senior political advisor Fidel Moreno responded by offering to pay Calderón’s mortgage and give his children scholarships if he did not criticise the president or government. Calderón turned down the offer. However, since the rejection, he has received anonymous phone calls warning him that the July 29-30 concerts may yet be cancelled.
Channel 8, a critical TV station with the government, has been bought by a consortium created by presidents Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chávez. Details of the transaction had been kept secret, and Ortega’s possible control of the channel raised concern this week about attempts to silence the opposition.
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A major new global ranking index tracking the state of free expression published today (Wednesday, 25 January) by Index on Censorship sees the UK ranked as only “partially open” in every key area measured.
In the overall rankings, the UK fell below countries including Australia, Israel, Costa Rica, Chile, Jamaica and Japan. European neighbours such as Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Denmark also all rank higher than the UK.
The Index Index, developed by Index on Censorship and experts in machine learning and journalism at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), uses innovative machine learning techniques to map the free expression landscape across the globe, giving a country-by-country view of the state of free expression across academic, digital and media/press freedoms.
Key findings include:
The countries with the highest ranking (“open”) on the overall Index are clustered around western Europe and Australasia – Australia, Austria, Belgium, Costa Rica, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland.
The UK and USA join countries such as Botswana, Czechia, Greece, Moldova, Panama, Romania, South Africa and Tunisia ranked as “partially open”.
The poorest performing countries across all metrics, ranked as “closed”, are Bahrain, Belarus, Burma/Myanmar, China, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Eswatini, Laos, Nicaragua, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates performed poorly in the Index Index but are embedded in key international mechanisms including G20 and the UN Security Council.
Ruth Anderson, Index on Censorship CEO, said:
“The launch of the new Index Index is a landmark moment in how we track freedom of expression in key areas across the world. Index on Censorship and the team at Liverpool John Moores University have developed a rankings system that provides a unique insight into the freedom of expression landscape in every country for which data is available.
“The findings of the pilot project are illuminating, surprising and concerning in equal measure. The United Kingdom ranking may well raise some eyebrows, though is not entirely unexpected. Index on Censorship’s recent work on issues as diverse as Chinese Communist Party influence in the art world through to the chilling effect of the UK Government’s Online Safety Bill all point to backward steps for a country that has long viewed itself as a bastion of freedom of expression.
“On a global scale, the Index Index shines a light once again on those countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates with considerable influence on international bodies and mechanisms – but with barely any protections for freedom of expression across the digital, academic and media spheres.”
Nik Williams, Index on Censorship policy and campaigns officer, said:
“With global threats to free expression growing, developing an accurate country-by-country view of threats to academic, digital and media freedom is the first necessary step towards identifying what needs to change. With gaps in current data sets, it is hoped that future ‘Index Index’ rankings will have further country-level data that can be verified and shared with partners and policy-makers.
“As the ‘Index Index’ grows and develops beyond this pilot year, it will not only map threats to free expression but also where we need to focus our efforts to ensure that academics, artists, writers, journalists, campaigners and civil society do not suffer in silence.”
Steve Harrison, LJMU senior lecturer in journalism, said:
“Journalists need credible and authoritative sources of information to counter the glut of dis-information and downright untruths which we’re being bombarded with these days. The Index Index is one such source, and LJMU is proud to have played our part in developing it.
“We hope it becomes a useful tool for journalists investigating censorship, as well as a learning resource for students. Journalism has been defined as providing information someone, somewhere wants suppressed – the Index Index goes some way to living up to that definition.”