Nicaragua closing digital divide

Despite poverty and limited Internet access in rural areas, Nicaragua’s connectivity—especially in Managua and other urban areas—has increased exponentially in recent years. And as more Nicaraguans venture into cyberspace, more are turning to the Internet to get their news, according to a recent study by CINCO.

Nicaragua’s Facebook frenzy has gone viral.

Despite the country’s gaping digital divide, the number of Facebook users in Nicaragua last year jumped from 150,000 to 700,000. That means nearly one in eight Nicaraguans is regularly posting status updates—an impressive jump in online activity for a country that just five years ago had less than 5% of its population connected to the Internet.

Widespread accessibility to 3G cell phone technology makes it difficult to know just how many Nicaraguans are connecting to the Internet from hand-held devices, but estimates are that 10-30% of the Nicaragua’s 5.7 million people are now online. And the connectivity rate in Managua could be as high as 40-50%.

The CINCO study estimates that Nicaragua has 579,000 Internet users with home connections, and another 250,000 who logon from Internet cafes, which are now found even the most remote corners of the country.

Still, the total number of Internet users in Nicaragua is unknown, in part due to government secrecy. The last government figures on Internet connectivity are from 2006, before the Sandinistas returned to power. President Daniel Ortega, whose government likes to treat most statistics and information like state secrets, mentioned in 2011 that there are 648,000 Internet connections in Nicaragua. If that number is close to accurate, it means that Internet connectivity here has increased 30-fold over the past five years, according to CINCO.  

As more Nicaraguans connect to the World Wide Web, more are going online to get their news. In Managua—home to 30% of Nicaragua’s population—Internet now ranks No. 2 behind TV as the most utilized means for getting news. According to an urban study by the Nicaraguan Organization of Publicity Agencies, 78% of Managua’s population watches TV, 52% use the Internet, 38.7% listen to the radio, and 18% read newspapers.

While there is no similar survey for rural areas, radio generally has a much greater market share in the countryside, where only 50% of the population has electricity, newspaper circulation is spotty, and Internet penetration drops to 7%, according to CINCO.

In global terms, however, the Internet is gaining considerable ground in Nicaragua. In 2010, the two major dailies—La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario—reported twice as many online readers as subscribers to their print editions.

The CINCO study attributes that partially to the fact that nearly 1 million Nicaraguans live outside the country in foreign lands with even greater Internet penetration. Since Nicaragua generally doesn’t make international news, Nicaraguans living abroad tend to read the websites of Nicaraguan media sources to stay abreast with what’s going on back home.

TV: static, color bars and other quality programming

Since the Sandinistas returned to power in 2007, TV news content has become increasingly subdued, unvaried and monotonousness, according to CINCO.

The presidential couple now controls one-third of all Nicaragua’s VHF channels, which three times a day interrupt their transmissions of telenovelas to broadcast Sandinista propaganda—usually in the form of Sandinista votaries thanking Comandante Ortega for one thing or another—and other connubial chatter. Another 25% of Nicaragua’s VHF channels are owned by Mexican business mogul Angel Gonzalez, a former business partner of the Ortega-Murillo group whose programming is equally thought-provoking.

As mainstream TV becomes increasingly vapid and pleonastic—with few notable exceptions, such as Carlos Fernando Chamorro’s acuminous news programs Esta Noche and Esta Semana—the Internet has become a new forum for free expression. Different interest groups and individual standouts in Nicaragua have employed the Internet for social campaigns, online activism and awareness-raising crusades.

But when it comes to critical journalism, which in Nicaragua is gasping for air under a government that restricts access to information and uses state publicity to reward compliance and punish independent voices, the Internet is still underused, CINCO investigators say.

Leonor Zúniga, a sociologist and co-author of CINCO’s digital media report, says the increase of Internet activity in Nicaragua has not necessarily translated into an increase of online journalism.

“There is definitely a multiplication of diverse voices on the Internet, but how much of that information is journalism? Very little,” Zúniga says.

The problem, she says, is that the traditional business class in Nicaragua still doesn’t view the World Wide Web as a viable medium for publicity, despite the rapidly increasingly number of online viewers and Internet readership.

Indeed, the CINCO study found that 69% of the media outlets that have a webpage don’t have any paid advertising on their sites, indicating that they are being subsidized.

“(Webpages) are still not seen as autonomous media that can be self-sufficient,” the CINCO report found.

Because the Internet is still not a profitable venture, it has deterred print journalists struggling in other mediums from starting online news sources, even though the numbers show that’s where the readers are.

Another paradox about the Internet is that while it is having an increasingly strong influence over public opinion in Nicaragua, it doesn’t appear to be influencing Nicaragua’s decision-makers, Zúniga says.

“But that’s typical in authoritarian societies,” she says.

Still, the Sandinista government is very aware of the growing importance of the Internet on public opinion. Zúniga says in technical terms, the Sandinista media websites are among the most complete, despite the fact that few people (other than journalists) visit them.

The presidential couple also understands the importance of social media, even though Ortega doesn’t tweet or maintain a Facebook account, and Murillo is too wordy for Twitter’s 140 character limit.

Prior to the elections last year, the presidential couple’s ruling party created more than 340 Facebook accounts to echo campaign slogans and Sandinista propaganda, the CINCO report found.

So given how busy the Sandinista Front was opening new Facebook accounts last year, technically the number of new users in 2011 climbed only to 699,660.