• A version of this story ran on the author's site, nicaraguadispatch.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
Opposition lawmakers in Nicaragua are lambasting an unannounced and unilateral decision by the ruling Sandinista Front to cut Internet service to all congressmen inside the legislative chamber of the National Assembly.
On Tuesday, lawmakers showed up to work to find that their computers in the legislative chamber no longer have Internet access. The restrictive measure, according to veteran Sandinista congressman José Figueroa, was implemented to prevent lawmakers from wasting time on Facebook or Cartoonnetwork.com.
“This is a measure to get all the lawmakers to focus only on their legislative work. All the social networks, personal emails and personal information can be looked at in their offices, because each lawmaker has his or her office,” Mr. Figueroa told El Nuevo Diario.
Figueroa said lawmakers in the legislative chamber will be limited to accessing the National Assembly’s webpage and their daily work agenda, which will be facilitated by a closed-circuit intranet system. Predictably, other Sandinista lawmakers have closed ranks and applauded the administrative decision.
But opposition lawmakers argue the move is an “absurd” and “authoritarian” attempt by Sandinistas to control access to information, limit lawmakers from interacting with constituents and deterring informed debate in the National Assembly.
“This is a form of censorship, similar to what you see from the governments of Cuba, Iran, and China,” says Liberal Party lawmaker Carlos Langrand. “Information is power; it helps inform debates in the National Assembly and allows lawmakers to connect with voters through social media, as well as remain up-to-date on what is happening in the world.”
Mr. Langrand thinks the Sandinistas’ decision to take the legislative chamber offline demonstrates the ruling party’s “fear of information flow” and is an attempt by Nicaragua’s establishment to “suppress the freedom of expression by cutting off communication with the outside world.”
In a country with less than 10 percent Internet connectivity, restricting Internet use in the National Assembly doesn’t seem to be consistent with national efforts to close the digital divide or modernize government, says Sandinista dissident lawmaker Victor Hugo Tinoco, of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).
“This is an absurd decision. The Internet is an important tool that we use to inform debate. When we are discussing economic matters, we often use Internet to refer to statistics published on the Central Bank’s webpage,” Mr. Tinoco says.
Tinoco noted that the international community has gone to great efforts to help Nicaragua’s National Assembly modernize with technology, computers, and Internet access. To now limit those advances makes no sense, he says.
“What’s next?” Tinoco demanded. “Removing Internet from schools and universities because it’s a distraction from learning?”
Langrand admits that there are some uninterested and disengaged lawmakers who waste their time fooling around online. But he claims those are mostly low-ranking Sandinista lawmakers whose job it is to vote piously and unquestioningly for their party’s position, which is handed down from the presidency and not subject for debate.
“Those are the lawmakers who spend all day on Facebook or playing online solitaire, because there is no room for dissent or debate in the ranks of the Sandinista Front. But the opposition is more interested in debating legislation,” he says.
Both Langrand and Tinoco say their opposition legislative blocs are scheduled to meet this week to file an official appeal or protest of the Internet ban.
– A version of this blog ran on the author's website, www.nicaraguadispatch.com