Representatives of public institutions, pro-government media, and social media users engaged in “inflammatory rhetoric that, since 2018, stigmatized and incited hatred” against government opponents or those perceived as such, – including HR defenders, journalists, religious leaders, and politicians – leading to brutal repression in the country, argues the Group of Experts on Human Rights in Nicaragua (GHREN) in its final report on human rights violations in Nicaragua.
The use of hate speech was “part of a communication strategy that included the implementation of disinformation and stigmatization campaigns through social networks, institutional spaces, and pro-government media,” the experts detailed. To this end, guidelines were issued to officials and pro-government media on what information should be disseminated and how it should be articulated.
The Group believes that the Nicaraguan authorities developed a “discursive construction of the enemy,” ascribing responsibility for the acts of violence to government opponents, or those who were perceived as such, whom they labeled as ‘coup perpetrators’ and ‘traitors’.” Over time, “they expanded this category to include an ever-wider group of people who were the object of defamation, insults, and serious public accusations by the authorities,” details the report.
The experts also noted that “many individuals were also subjected to targeted smear campaigns and harassment through social networks and official and pro-government media.”
“Given the general context of repression and impunity in the face of attacks by the government-aligned sector of the population against the population perceived as government opponents, the GHREN considers that the described discourse may constitute an incitement to violence,” they stress.
In addition, government opponents were subjected to “intimidation, threats, surveillance and aggression” by police, members of pro-government groups, and local structures aligned with the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), such as the Councils of Citizen Power, Electoral Victory Units, Sandinista Youth and the Sandinista Leadership Committees.
Journalists, Feminists, and Religious Targeted
The GHREN documented over 100 cases of individuals, who were subjected to intimidation and harassment by the police, pro-government groups, and local FSLN structures, including journalists, feminists, religious leaders, students, artists, members of political parties, political movements, and civil society organizations, lawyers, and relatives of victims of human rights violations and abuses.
The criminalization, stigmatization, threats, and constant harassment of those who opposed the government, or were perceived as such, meant “that not only could they not participate freely in the social and political life of the country, but they could not develop their lives in a normal way,” the experts emphasize. In addition, the interviewees expressed that they were afraid to leave their homes and, fearing reprisals, some were forced to change their residence several times or had to leave the country.
“The patterns of harassment were particularly severe in the case of those released from prison, who were subjected to constant surveillance, attacks, threats, loss of employment, and loss of access to higher education. All this prevented them from rebuilding their life projects and had a serious impact on their family life,” emphasize the UN experts.
Relatives of victims of rape and abuse and the organizations that supported them were also specifically targeted. “This disproportionately affected women, who often led the way in demanding the right to justice. Similarly, lawyers and advocates for politically detained persons were targeted in reprisals,” the Group notes.
GIE warns of hate speech in Nicaragua
The findings of the GHREN reinforce what was pointed out by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which in its 2018 final report warned that the speeches of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo aimed to create a negative image of the citizenry.
“They use terms that start by minimizing the adverse figure. (They say) They are minuscule groups, they are mediocre, they are tiny. Then they go on to have a negative intentionality: they are perverse, destructive, toxic, poisoned, sadistic. Once defined with the negativity charge, they are held responsible for tragic events and criminalized. They are delinquents, criminals, gang members, members of organized crime and drug trafficking,” the GIEI outlined at the time, recalling words used in Ortega and Murillo’s speeches.
At the same time, the GIEI pointed out that Ortega and Murillo's speeches impose the charge of betraying the ideals and achievements of Sandinismo on the opposition. “They are envoys or allies of U.S. imperialism, the one that finances them or to which they beg for resources. They are the anti-Christ, the envoys of darkness,” the report describes.
Five years later, this stigmatizing discourse has materialized in criminal accusations against the opposition that the regime considers “traitors to the homeland”, for which Law 1055 or Law for the Defense of the People's Rights to Independence, Sovereignty and Self-Determination for Peace was approved.
“Separate groups of citizens are established,” warned the GIEI. “One citizenry is considered, by the official discourse, as having a good conscience because it approves and supports official actions; and the other, the dissidence that destabilizes, generates chaos, responds to foreign interests, and comes to destroy what has been achieved.”
The regime continues to violate the human rights of Nicaraguans, more than 350 people were killed during the 2018 protests, more than a thousand were political prisoners, nearly half a million Nicaraguans have been forced into exile and 317 were stripped of their Nicaraguan nationality.
Dehumanization of the enemy
A CONFIDENCIAL investigation published in November 2019 explains that there are several categories within this type of hostile discourse. The official discourse of the regime, designed by Murillo, fits within several of them.
A research paper titled “Speech Along the Atrocity Spectrum,” by Gregory S. Gordon, who served as prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda outlines “general statements” that include repetition of negative stereotypes, defamation of the victim group, and dehumanizing statements through techniques of “animalization” and demonization. This seems to be Murillo's specialty.
The list of insults used by Murillo was born on April 18, 2018, the day the anti-government protests began and were violently repressed by members of the Sandinista Youth. A notoriously displeased Rosario Murillo, in her usual phone calls to one of her propaganda media, exclaimed, “That is a perverse manipulation! Those tiny groups, those small, toxic souls, full of hate, do not represent the feeling, the need for peace, work, and affection of the Nicaraguan people who have suffered so much.”
The citizen protests grew and the insults grew with them. With what objective? Those in power use labels for social control, explains communication expert Mildred Largaespada.
These insults seek to politically and socially stigmatize those who protest. Murillo “installed the discourse of ‘us and them’ and uses the labels to offer a quick and easy qualification description to her social group, to explain who the people protesting are,” she adds.
Although with fewer statements, Ortega followed the same line in his speeches. In his November 7, 2021 speech during election day, he referred to opponents of his government as “sowers of death”, “sowers of hate”, “sowers of terror”, and “demons who do not want peace”. “In other countries, they even get the death penalty,” he said.
Damaging the social fabric
According to GHREN, the repeated propagation of this hate speech, which was amplified through media and social networks, over time has contributed to generating a climate of misinformation and hostility towards voices critical of the Government, conducive to the perpetration of other violations and abuses against them, such as arbitrary detentions and acts of harassment and intimidation.
GHREN considers that “the defamation and discrediting of members of civil society had a silencing effect, not only on those who suffered directly but on society in general”. The analyzed discourse exacerbated political polarization and contributed to the breakdown of the social fabric.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff.