The Nicaraguan regime has just expanded its repressive resources with the approval of a law against cybercrimes. Its most troubling characteristic is the criminalization of false information. Sandinista deputies formed an overwhelming majority of 70 votes in favor of the initiative against 16 opposing legislators and 4 abstentions.
The law provides from two to five years in prison for anyone who spreads fake news that causes “fear, anxiety or alarm in the population,” or that harms the honor, prestige and dignity of other people or endangers public order or “sovereign security.”
As often occurs in totalitarian regimes, the repressive objective of the legislation is disguised. It states the need to combat crimes perpetrated through new technologies (hacking, identity theft, computer espionage, virus spreading, electronic fraud) and to protect citizens from the harmful effects of false information.
The spread of lies through electronic devices is one of the great concerns of our times. Paradoxically, the most affected are open and democratic societies, but in them no one thinks of regulating the truth. By contrast, modern democracies tolerate a degree of falsehood in public debate in exchange for ensuring openness and vigor.
On the other hand, authoritarian regimes are obsessed with protecting the “truth” as a means of imposing a single version of events, naturally their own. Whoever offers another perspective is lying, creates confusion and endangers State Security. Erected as a judge of truth, the State cannot avoid becoming the rector of information and debate. That is the intention of Daniel Ortega.
Democracies understand that truth is elusive and is often blurred or incomplete. For this reason, not even science dares to postulate absolute truths. Its findings are always waiting for proof to the contrary. Just as in science all truth is provisional, in a democracy all truth is debatable. In authoritarianism, on the contrary, the truth is one and whoever departs from it deserves punishment.
The new Nicaraguan law is not to combat cybercrimes, but to create one in particular: the spread of fake news. Other countries, including our own [Costa Rica], have legislated on electronic crimes without setting a trap for freedom of expression.
Advanced countries, such as the United States and Spain, are reluctant to accept truth as a requirement of good faith for information, even in cases involving offenses against honor.
First, Sullivan’s sentence against The New York Times exempts from liability anyone who reported on an official without real malice. That is, without knowledge of the falsity of what is published and without reckless disregard for the truth.
Second, the courts have developed the theory of ex ante truthfulness to protect information, “even if it is inaccurate,” if the one who disseminates it had reasons to present it as true.
With the cybercrime law, Nicaragua goes against the tide of the democratic world. The Ortega dictatorship seeks to entrench its absolute control by suppressing the courageous work of journalists and media outlets willing to risk their physical integrity and freedom to inform their fellow citizens. We join the international protest against this new violation of human rights in the neighboring nation.
*This editorial was originally published in the newspaper “La Nacion” of Costa Rica.