Under a new deal between the governments of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian-produced media content will now be broadcast across Nicaragua.
The contract between the Communication and Citizenry Council of Nicaragua, the country's state media conglomerate, and the Sputnik radio network will make Russian content available to more than 20 Nicaraguan state channels, broadcasting to 6.6 million people.
During an event in Russia to mark the signing on September 5, Daniel Edmundo Ortega Murillo, the council's media coordinator, said the exchange of content will "bring the people of the two countries closer together for mutual understanding."
Ortega Murillo is one of Ortega's sons.
Vasily Pushkov, head of Sputnik's international cooperation directorate, said during the signing that it will help get rid of "unnecessary informational garbage."
Strengthening ties is important "in the face of media manipulation and hate campaigns promoted by the United States and European countries," Pushkov said.
The contract with a Russian entity that analysts view as a tool to spread disinformation concerns media experts, who warn that Nicaraguans already lack access to credible news.
"Both Vladimir Putin and Daniel Ortega persecute journalists and media outlets that dare to defy censorship," Carlos Jornet, president of the nonprofit Commission on Freedom of the Press and Information, told VOA.
The contract, he said, will ensure "Moscow advances in its ties with the autocrats of the region."
The deal comes as more of Nicaragua's independent media are forced to shutter.
Last month, Nicaragua's media regulator revoked the licenses of more than 25 media outlets, including local TV and radio stations. The closures come amid wider pressures on the country's independent media, with many journalists going into exile, citing risk of legal action and raids.
In July, the historic newspaper La Prensa announced it was relocating its entire newsroom due to raids and arrests of staff.
Weeks later, Ortega ceded the newspaper's premises to a public entity. Similar action was taken in the cases of other independent media, including the TV station 100% Noticias and the investigative news website Confidencial. Authorities took over their premises after the directors left Nicaragua.
In response to VOA's request for comment, the Nicaraguan embassy in Washington sent a message signed by Vice President Rosario Murillo. The message did not respond to VOA's questions. Instead, it said, "Thank you for your interest."
Ortega's administration has previously refuted claims of targeting opposition parties and media, instead saying it is protecting the country from media backed by foreign interests, mainly the United States.
VOA also contacted Russia's embassy in Nicaragua for comment. In an emailed response, the embassy said the contract "was agreed directly between the media without any participation of the Russian embassy."
The email, signed only as "Embassy of Russia," said Russian media are independent and "provide true, objective and balanced information."
International groups, including media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), have denounced the pressure on Russian media.
Since the war in Ukraine, "almost all independent media have been banned, blocked and/or declared 'foreign agents.' All others are subject to military censorship," RSF said. The watchdog ranks Russia 155 out of 180 countries, where 1 has the best environment for media, on its World Press Freedom Index.
For Jornet, the Sputnik deal wasn't a surprise.
"These are alliances in which both parties consolidate their contempt for professional journalism and their search to consolidate a story that is far from reality," he said.
For instance, Nicaragua's state-run media "denies poverty and repression," while Sputnik "misinforms with a sweetened version of the Russian invasion of Ukraine," Jornet said.
Sputnik's coverage follows the Kremlin line that the conflict is a "special military operation" to liberate the Donbas region.
The same narrative was replicated in Nicaragua's TN8 station — owned by another of Ortega's sons — when Russia first invaded in February.
Nicaraguan stations regularly incorporate or mirror Russian state TV content from operations including RT Spanish in their broadcasts.
A February 24 broadcast on TN8, for instance, reported on what it described as a pacifist operation from Russian forces in Ukraine.
Another segment featured the chair of the Russian State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, giving details of the military operation just launched in Ukraine.
After the invasion, distributors largely dropped Sputnik and RT English-language content in the U.S. and in Britain, the European Union and Canada. The European Commission cited concerns over state media "supporting the aggression in Ukraine."
Christopher Mendoza, director of Independent Journalists and Communicators of Nicaragua (PCIN), described the Sputnik agreement as an effort "to silence critical news so they can say what they want through their own media based on propaganda by the regime."
Since coming to power in 2007, Ortega's government has tried to gag critical voices, silence radio stations and shutter newspapers, Mendoza said.
The journalist noted that Nicaragua has signed similar deals with Chinese state media.
"These kinds of deals that he makes — on this occasion, with this Russian international agency, Sputnik — he had also done it with the Chinese media. It responds to a strategy where I see that the only thing that the regime wants is [for] the media to continue lying to the Nicaraguan people and the world," Mendoza said.
In February 2022, Nicaragua signed agreements with media agencies from China. At the event, Ortega Murillo expressed gratitude to Beijing for the cooperation with state media.
The agreement includes "a memorandum of understanding for the granting of a license on news material between Canal 6 and CCTV Plus and a cooperation agreement between 19 Digital and the Xinhua News Agency."
Nicaragua scores poorly on the World Press Freedom Index, ranking 160 out of 180 countries, where 1 has the best media environment.
RSF, which compiles the index, says the country's independent journalists "endure a nightmare of censorship, intimidation and threats."
This article originated in VOA's Spanish-language division.