El Salvador

Some of the persistent problems that make the job of journalists difficult are the fact that public institutions, and particularly the executive branch, block access to information and the continuing attacks against journalists while doing their work. Despite the constitutional guarantee, in practice there is no legal mechanism that requires officials to provide information requested by citizens from any public agency. This leaves it up to the subjective criteria of the top official or mid-level functionaries to decide what information to disclose. For this reason, journalists’ requests for information are often denied or postponed indefinitely. A recent example of this subjective handling of information requests occurred in February in the area of health. The top authorities have centralized information about patients and illnesses and do not allow hospital directors to provide information of public interest. Under this measure, journalists always have incorrect information, and the problem is aggravated when answers are needed about sensitive subjects such as epidemics. In addition, during the current doctors’ strike, which began last September, the Salvadoran Social Security agency has followed a policy of providing very little, and incomplete, information. It rarely responds to reporters’ requests for precise information. Thus, it is impossible to know the real impact of the conflict on health care. Some autonomous agencies with state budgets follow the same policy of blocking news. The National Aqueduct and Sewer Agency (ANDA) and the Executive Hydroelectric Commission of Río Lempa (CEL), an electricity utility, refuse to provide information about management of their budgets. Other recently established institutions, such as the authorities for energy, telecommunications, banks and stocks, are in the same situation. There is also a problem with access to information in the Judicial Branch. There is a persistent lack of information about the handling of its budgets in areas such as expenses, hiring of staff and investments. La Prensa Gráfica has questioned the expenses for advisers and security, but has not received timely answers. Access to cases in the Supreme Court is almost impossible, and the court does not disclose its rulings. Most of the justices avoid the media and leave the responsibility for answering all journalists’ queries in the hands of the chief justice. Of the 15 justices, more than half have hardly appeared in the media at all, including when they were elected. There is also a gag rule in the Criminal Code restricting access to court hearings, under Articles 272 and 327. These articles establish confidentiality of cases, but it must always be invoked with by a written and well-founded decision. However, there have been innumerable cases when judges have imposed confidentiality in a trial without explaining the reason. Most officials do not even explain to reporters the reasons for the ruling. Sometimes it is requested by the prosecutor’s office without explanation. Individuals and journalists’ associations have been asking since 2001 for changes in these articles of the codes, but so far the Legislative Assembly has not taken up the matter. Promises by the top judicial authorities to recommend that judges not abuse the gag articles have not been fulfilled. Criminal laws also keep pressure on journalists and the media with the threat of Special Disqualification (Article 180 of the Criminal Code) and prison sentences for the crimes of libel and defamation (Articles 177, 178 and 179). The State Audit Court has been completely closed to journalists. Based on changes made last September to the Enabling Law of the Audit Court, specifically Article 46, the chief judge and his officials do not disclose information about the results of audits of public institutions. President Flores did not veto this modification of the Audit Court law, but gave it his support the month after it was approved. This has blocked journalists’ access to the auditors’ reports. Audits are not conducted in an open way, and sometimes they are made public for political reasons. In this context, the Audit Court remains politicized, since it is controlled by the National Conciliation Party (PCN) a right-wing party that has the third largest delegation in Congress. The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), whose secretary general was also head of the communist party for 30 years, has systematically maligned and harassed the media of El Salvador. He also openly espouses manipulation and restriction of the practice of independent journalism as part of his “Country Plan” political platform. The FMLN has spoken of a plan to “democratize” media ownership and make it “illegal” for media owners and directors to express their opinions in editorials or have a say in content. These statements have been preceded in recent months by a series of brutal physical assaults on journalists at public rallies organized by FMLN. Also symptomatic are other signs of the FMLN’s and its leaders’ intolerance of democracy. At the slightest hint that journalists might act as watchdogs of their performance in office, they mobilize a smear campaign against them to distort the truth. El Diario de Hoy reported that one of its journalists seeking to travel to Canada in search of evidence against a company under investigation in a multimillion-dollar political corruption scandal relating to waste treatment in 10 municipalities governed by the FMLN had his visa delayed for two days. After the journalist formally applied for a visa, the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala first asked him to reveal the subject of his investigation and then insisted that he get an invitation letter from a Canadian media outlet in order to enter the country. The intervention of El Salvador’s foreign minister had to be requested before the visa was finally granted. Regarding restrictions on access to public information, the newspaper El Mundo reported that 19 of its requests for information from a number of different government agencies were denied in the past six months. El Mundo also reported that three of its journalists were assaulted in late 2002 by union groups. In March of 2002 a mob of extreme left-wing unionist gathered in from of FM corporation and destroyed several vehicles and some equipment belonging to the radio station. This is important because it is part of a general pattern of violence against the independent media.