MANAGUA, NICARAGUA - Journalists at Canal 12 News, one of Nicaragua’s two remaining independent news broadcasters, face an uncertain future after a court in the capital, Managua, ordered the station’s assets seized as part of a tax case that one of its editors says is political retaliation.

The freeze affects Nicavision S.A., which operates Canal 12. The court order enforces a demand by the country's tax agency that Canal 12 pay more than U.S. $500,000 in taxes due from 2011 to 2013, according to Managua weekly newspaper Confidencial.

Judge Luden Quiroz García's September 11 order to seize the broadcast facilities, station vehicles and the owner's personal estate is the latest in a series of audits and asset seizures faced by news organizations that report critically on the government of President Daniel Ortega.

“The government is going to try to silence the few TV stations that are left and telling the stories they don't want to hear," Canal 12 News director Marcos Medina told VOA.

In Nicaragua, the majority of large media outlets are owned by members of Ortega's family or his political allies.

“This perverse action threatens freedom of the press and expression," tweeted the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights. "We demand that the regime desist from its strategy of intimidating journalists and destroying independent media.”

The station, which issued a statement calling the amount "arbitrary and excessive," went under a government audit in 2018. Earlier that year, it reported on deadly police crackdowns on a wave of anti-government protests over cuts to social security and calls for Ortega's resignation.

Wilfredo Navarro, a lawmaker with the ruling Sandinista Front, defended the move, calling the court decision "a simple matter."

"Everyone must pay taxes and the right-wing media blames it on ‘political persecution,’ [but] they don't want to pay taxes," he told VOA by phone. "The Canal 12 is an old problem; they have been on trial for months, they appealed and now this is the verdict."

Some international observers disagree.

The American Chamber of Commerce of Nicaragua, a nonprofit that promotes trade between the U.S. and Nicaragua, condemned the ruling, saying it disrespects the “rule of law and affects not only businessmen but the population in general.”

"Nicaraguan authorities should stop using financial investigations to intimidate independent media and should allow Canal 12 to report freely without fear of reprisal,” said a statement by Natalie Southwick, South and Central America program coordinator for the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Canal 12's top editor, Carolina Valle, who called the court order a form of “political retaliation,” told CPJ that the station remains operational but that its bank accounts have been frozen. She also said the judge ordered seizure of all personal assets held by the station's owner, Mariano Valle Peters.

FILE - Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega.

Officials at the Nicaraguan General Income Directorate, the country’s tax agency, and Managua's embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. The Ortega government, which is currently observing a weeklong holiday, has not commented on the court order, although sources close to the ruling party told VOA's Latin America division that the decision was justified. They did not elaborate.

Silencing last independent voices

Canal 12 News director Medina said the decision, which creates uncertainty for more than 20 staff at the station, mirrors harassment of other outlets.

"The same type of pressure was faced by 100% Noticias and La Prensa," he said, referring to outlets that faced Ortega government-led actions after reporting on the 2018 demonstrations.

La Prensa, Nicaragua's longest-running and best-known daily broadsheet, nearly folded after an 18-month government-enforced blockade of newsprint supplies, resulting in massively diminished circulation and newsroom-wide layoffs. The government lifted the blockade in February amid international pressure and calls from the Vatican.

In December 2018, 100% Noticias, also known as Canal 15, had its operating license revoked and its offices confiscated by Nicaragua’s National Police. The channel's director, Miguel Mora, and journalist Lucía Pineda Ubau both served six-month jail sentences for inciting terrorism.

"Now the same is happening to Canal 12," Medina said. "They don't like the type of journalism we do, especially since April of 2018."

Tabloid newsroom taken over

Also commandeered by police was the newsroom of weekly tabloid Confidencial, whose publisher, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, fled to Costa Rica, where he spent 10 months operating the publication in a digital-only format. Chamorro returned to Nicaragua in November 2019 to run Confidencial from a new building.

In January, Nicaraguan Supreme Court Magistrate Francisco Rosales told VOA a verdict on the police-confiscated outlets would soon be issued, but the court has yet to rule.

If Canal 12 doesn't survive, Canal 10, which boasts Nicaragua's largest television audience, would remain the country's sole independent broadcaster. On September 13, Managua-based news site Articulo66 reported that Canal 10 received a tax assessment declaring it more than $3 million in debt to the tax agency.

Some already speculate that the Canal 10 assessment is also politically motivated.

"[Canal 10] has fulfilled [all of its tax obligations], but you know how this is," said a source who spoke with VOA on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Washington imposed sanctions on the Ortega government and national police for human rights violations following the anti-government protests in 2018 and urged Managua to ease restrictions on other organizations. In May, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned Nicaraguan army commander Julio Cesar Aviles Castillo and Finance and Public Credit Minister Ivan Adolfo Acosta Montalvan for human rights abuses and "seeking to silence pro-democracy voices in Nicaragua."

"Daniel Ortega strangles dissent and denies Nicaraguans access to information," Michael G. Kozak, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, tweeted Sept. 13. "On the eve of Nicaraguan independence day, his regime is using spurious tax measures to close two vital independent TV broadcasters. Until Ortega releases his grip, Nicaraguans will not be free."

This story originated in VOA's Latin America division. Pete Cobus contributed reporting from Washington.