El Salvador

There has been a series of legislative acts and party statements that oppose press freedom and the public’s right to information. While celebrating the international Labor Day, May 1, Schafik Handal, a legislator and leader of the opposition party FMLN, called journalists liars and said the media should not be trusted. Moments later he rebuked a reporter for the show “TELEDOS” on Canal 2, which caused his followers to insult the journalist and his cameraman and attack them physically. After that, others turned on the newspaper El Diario de Hoy. Article 24 of the Law of National Defense includes a serious threat to press freedom, the right to information and confidentiality of sources. It states that “officials, public or municipal authorities, individuals or legal entities must provide required information in an official manner by the proper authorities for purposes of national defense.” Ten municipal governments in the metropolitan San Salvador region have repeatedly refused to provide information about a controversial case of dubious handling of public funds intended for the construction and maintenance of a trash transfer plant. The 10 towns, with 1.5 million residents, refuse to give information about almost $6 million collected from users’ electricity bills after a morning newspaper reported the disappearance of a good portion of this fund. The Legislative Assembly approved on September 26 changes to the Enabling Law of the State Audit Court. The change to Article 46 refuses to make public the results of the court’s audits of government officials responsible for handling taxpayers’ money until the officials have been either convicted or acquitted. Article 46 says, “Audit reports shall be signed by officials of the court as the regulations require and will be made public once a decision has been issued either to convict or to acquit.” The change would substitute to previous article, which establishes that audit reports of the court shall “be public,” thus guaranteeing the transparency of the government auditor. Under the amendment, which has been denounced by journalists, professional organizations and other sectors, Salvadoreans’ money will be counted and supervised behind closed doors. President Francisco Flores returned the decree containing the amendments with comments, and although he plans to revise it, it still contains elements that threaten press freedom, because it gives full discretion to the presiding judge of the Audit Court to decide when results of audits will be made public. Also, a bill for the Law of the Health Benefits Council, sent to the Assembly by the administration, says in Article 20, “those who attend meetings of the Board of Directors will be liable if they divulge any confidential information about topics discussed.” And, in Article 23, “it is prohibited to reveal any detail of reports or to give news about any private matter.” The morning newspaper La Prensa Gráfica has condemned discrimination against its journalists by the Supreme Court, especially the chief justice, after it published documented reports on the excessive and burdensome hiring of security consultants and a confessed criminal currently serving as direct consultant to the chief justice’s office. The newspaper also reported that the chair of the National Judicature Council has centralized the information released by the council and prevents the other council members from making statements to journalists.