On January 16, Nicaragua’s General Directorate of Customs imposed restrictions on travelers entering Nicaragua with cameras, photographic lenses and night vision binoculars, making them subject to confiscation for violating the regulations. The measures came after a growing number of foreign reporters and documentary filmmakers exposed the growing crackdown since 2018 by the Daniel Ortega-Rosario Murillo regime.
“This could be called the ‘Koreanization’ of Nicaragua,” said former exiled lawmaker Eliseo Nunes, referring to the draconian dictatorship of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. “This goes beyond what the Cuban and Chinese regimes are doing to tourists… Its purpose is to protect Nicaragua from prying eyes. The camera ban might sound silly given all the cell phones with cameras, but the regime doesn’t expect ordinary visitors with cell phones to spend all their time looking for photos and information. But it’s stunning how they shut down the country.
The Sandinista regime justified the ban on night vision binoculars on the grounds that the equipment was for the “exclusive use” of the Nicaraguan army and national police, two institutions accused of using firearms to suppress protesters. “Confiscated binoculars without a permit issued by the National Police and which have not been returned by the traveler within three months of confiscation become the property of the National Police,” the new regulation states.
The new ordinance allows tourists to enter the country with “one photographic device and one long-range viewing device… Quantities above those permitted will be subject to applicable import duties and taxes.” However, Nicaraguan customs sources said , that the Sandinista regime will not only use this law to collect tax revenue, but “for political purposes, to hinder the work of journalists and documentary filmmakers.”
The new customs regulation includes a long list of camera models, video/film cameras and other viewing devices that cannot be imported into Nicaragua. The country has suffered a significant drop in international tourism since an ongoing socio-political crisis erupted into violence in 2018. Tourism has long been an important sector of the economy, but until now private tourism promotion offices and businesses offering birdwatching and photo adventures have declined to spoke out against the ban.
“The Customs Department’s communique includes a very detailed list of photographic and film equipment manufactured by leading companies such as Canon, Sony and Nikon. Most importantly, the banned devices are high-end equipment designed for professionals that most ordinary tourists will not have because it is very expensive,” said Carlos Herrera, one of Nicaragua’s most prominent photojournalists. “This measure is another tool to censor journalists and documentary filmmakers who reflect the atmosphere of repression in the country.”
Ortega-Muriyo’s former sister-in-law, who is in charge of issuing permits
A tourist or traveler wishing to enter Nicaragua with “professional or amateur” cameras or filming equipment must obtain a permit from the National Film Archive, which is currently headed by Idania Castillo, a former daughter-in-law of the presidential couple who remains very close to the vice president Rosario Murillo. In 2018, during the height of the police and paramilitary crackdown on civil protests, Castillo was responsible for handling requests from international media and communicating official statements from the presidency.
Castillo, who was once married to Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo’s son, Juan Carlos, has become increasingly influential in the presidential couple’s tight-knit inner circle. In October 2022, when the National Assembly reformed the charter of the National Film Archive, it expanded the authority of the institution to include the supervision of all audiovisual and film productions made in Nicaragua. The new charter now requires domestic and foreign persons and organizations engaged in cinematographic and audiovisual activities to register with the institution.
The autonomous national film archive has the power “to prohibit the development, public display and commercialization of cinematographic and audiovisual products and may confiscate them if they do not comply with this law.” Journalists and documentary filmmakers say it is yet another tool to silence creative freedom in response to critical reports of the regime’s intensifying strategy of repression, persecution and forced exile. When many Nicaraguan journalists were forced to go underground or into exile, a number of international journalists found ways to circumvent the country’s immigration controls to report on the persecution of dissident voices.
“In a way, we already had in fact restrictions on photographic equipment,” Herrera said. “The new customs communique cites a law passed in 2000 that is not being applied consistently. But now the regime is using laws like this to control their own citizens… they are using laws created for other purposes to further their political goals. Other countries do not have similar regulations controlling travelers with photographic or film equipment. All you have to do is show that you use the equipment in your work as a photographer or journalist.’
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