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World News

Nicaragua passes bill criminalizing what government considers fake news

MANAGUA (Reuters) - Nicaragua’s congress overwhelmingly passed legislation on Tuesday to regulate what can be published on social media and in the news, a move critics condemned as a brazen attempt to muzzle opposition to President Daniel Ortega.

Under the so-called cyber crime law, prison terms of up to four years can be handed down for anyone found guilty of publishing fake news on social media or news outlets.

Those who reveal information that is “not authorized” by the government face prison sentences of four to six years, while people who access or divulge information that puts national security at risk face jail terms of up to eight years.

Ortega, whose supporters championed the bill, is expected to approve it.

The measure, approved by 70 of 91 lawmakers present in the legislature, has sparked criticism from opposition activists and media organizations that it will criminalize journalism.

“This law violates freedom of expression of citizens, the media and social networks. ... This (law) is looking for scapegoats in the opposition and media not controlled by the government,” opposition lawmaker Azucena Castillo said.

Castillo was one of 16 lawmakers who voted against the bill.

The measure came on the heels of another bill to ban foreign financing for “political purposes,” which would require anyone receiving funding from abroad to register with the Interior Ministry and explain the money’s destination.

Opposition members have said that bill aims to prevent the government’s critics from receiving outside financing ahead of the 2021 election.

Ortega, whose current term ends in January 2022, has derided his adversaries as coup plotters and terrorists.

Backers of Ortega in Congress said the law would regulate cyber, sexual and financial crimes, as well as the dissemination of false information. They argued that freedom of expression was already regulated by Nicaragua’s constitution.

Pro-government lawmaker Jose Zepeda accused the opposition of using social networks to “slander and humiliate.”

“The law does not speak about restricting freedom of expression. As a citizen, I have the right to know what the source of information is,” Zepeda said.

Ortega has been in power for the past 13 years, his second stint in charge of Nicaragua. Protracted protests against his government flared in 2018, killing over 300 people.

Reporting by Ismael Lopez; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Peter Cooney

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