El Salvador

EL SALVADOR Nine months into the administration of President Francisco Flores, his relations with the press have improved if compared with the aloofness he maintained at the start of his term. However, he still keeps a prudent distance from journalists and issues statements—addressing specific issues--only during pre-arranged conferences organized by his press secretary. The chief executive follows the rule that his cabinet members will address questions related to their areas of expertise. It should be recognized, however, that the flow of information is increasingly fluid, thanks to the help of officials who act as intermediaries in the process. Flores, moreover, maintains a respectful relationship with the press. Nevertheless, official secrecy still surrounds some topics of public interest, such as the procedures followed by the government in handling certain calls for bids. The new criminal and procedural codes still retain certain dispositions that close journalistic access to specified stages of the legal process. The main justification advanced for this practice is to protect the principle of “presumption of innocence” of the accused. Even so, Salvadoran journalists have played a major watchdog role on legal decisions compromised by corruption, ignorance and malice. That role has obliged the Supreme Court and the Attorney General of the Republic to examine the performance of many officials responsible for administering justice. The Code of Minors forbids the media from publishing photographs, full names and other identifying features of minors, regardless of the danger posed by the so-called “delinquent minors.” Conexión con la Verdad (Link to the Truth), a radio program of opinion, was suspended supposedly on orders of the “presidential house,” according to the senior staff of the armed forces as cited in the initial report of the radio station’s management. Edwin Góngora, the journalist who leases the air time and is responsible for the program, reported that it was shut down without prior warning; Góngora himself was prevented from entering the broadcast booth. On demanding an explanation from the station management, they told him the action responded to orders from the presidential house. Carlos Rosales, the presidential press secretary, called Góngora to deny any connection with the suspension order. Góngora speculated that the program was halted because of an “outburst of the lady director.” He added, however, that the air time would not be returned to him and that it would be granted to other journalists. El Diario de Hoy published last October an extensive investigative piece that showed how several casinos operating in San Salvador are owned by a) a support organization for a terrorist group; b) the former chief of intelligence of the Honduran army, Leonidas Torres Arias, who was investigated in the 80s by the U.S. Congress for alleged links to international narcotrafficking and arms dealing; c) a German with ties to the German mafia, expelled at one time from Costa Rica and investigated in the 80s by the International Police (INTERPOL). As a result of the articles, El Salvador’s Congress ordered municipalities stripped of the right to open casinos and the political parties announced an agreement to close them once existing operating contracts expire. Another result was that Col. Torres Arias, in common agreement with other casino owners, filed a criminal lawsuit against El Diario de Hoy Publisher Enrique Altamirano and Lafitte Fernández, editor-in-chief. The suit represents no challenge for the newspaper because the allegations are amply verifiable in the official files of the United States. Some aspects of the lawsuit do concern the paper’s management. For example, the legal action is sponsored by lawyers who have been suspended by the Supreme Court due to their connections to mafia and drug trafficking groups. Also worrisome is evidence that they have tried, at the very least, to bribe judicial officials to gain their objectives. This latter suspicion has been reported to the Supreme Court. Doctors and workers of the Salvadoran Social Security Institute have been on strike since November 15, 1999. This has become a major problem for those who depend on the health system. Relations between the strike leaders and the press have soured over time. Verbal clashes have occurred frequently. Recently, photographers of El Diario de Hoy, La Prensa Gráfica and TV12 covering the story were attacked by labor union members at hospitals in the city. In the wake of the strike, there was a confrontation March 6 between the police and a group of strikers who blocked traffic along one of San Salvador’s principal streets. During the clash, photographer Walter Santos of El Mundo, was wounded in the legs by rubber bullets. A policeman fired at him, less than three meters away, while Santos, clearly identified as a photojournalist, took pictures. El Salvador’s National Civil Police is investigating the incident after several journalists who were at the scene identified the officer who fired on Santos.