El Salvador

EL SALVADOR Press freedom has been seriously compromised by the murder of a journalist, beatings of others, and disclosure of corruption. On August 25, unidentified men murdered Radio Corporad6n Salvadorena (RCN) newscaster Maria Lorena Saravia, 34. Her body, found 15 kilometers from San Salvador, showed signs of a violent attack. Saravia, who had been divorced for two years, left two children, ages 6 and 8. She had been working at RCN since the station was founded in November, 1996. She also worked as a newscaster on Channel 21 and radio station YSKL. This is the first murder of a journalist since the war ended in 1992. During the conflict, more than 20 journalists were killed. Although it has not been determined if Saravia's murder was a direct result of her professional activities, the court in charge of the case has not investigated it in depth, and there have been no arrests. The police only limit themselves to saying they are pursuing leads about the case. On May 27, the San Salvador Mayor revealed that prior administrations had paid the eqUivalent of U.S. $46 to seven journalists in exchange for not reporting news that would damage the image of former San Salvador Mayor Mario Valiente and of President Armando Calderón Sol, when he held the same office. All the journalists denied the charges and said that they had received money as payments for advertising. The present mayor took office May 1, representing a coalition of leftist parties made up of the FMLN, Democratic Convergence (CD), and the Unity Movement (MU). The Finance Court, which investigated the case, found the journalists innocent of the charges. On July 6, journalists Edwin G6ngora, Miguel G6ngora, Miguel Gonzalez, and Carlos Rivas from Channel 12's news program "Hechos" and El Diario de Hoy reporter Ernesto Rivas were physically assaulted when they attempted to interview businessman Roberto Mathies Hill, accused of a multimillion dollar fraud, more than 500 million in colones, involving the financial institutions FINSEPRO and INSEPRO. On August 22, evening newspaper El Diario Latino photojournalist Julio Campos was beaten up by private security guards when he tried to photograph songwriter-singer Big Boy at a concert. The guards also destroyed Campos' equipment. A Diario de Hoy security guard was murdered near the newspaper in circumstances that are still not clear. And a few hours later, when the murder had not yet been made public, and only the police had identified the unfortunate youth, the newspaper received calls threatening its security force with death. The New Procedural Code, which includes measures to deny journalists access to certain phases of the legal process, is one of the greatest threats to freedom of information. The main argument for the measure is based on the "presumption of innocence" of the accused. The defects of a deeply corrupt and inefficient court system make the new Code even more damaging to press freedom. Articles of the Code, which goes into effect next year, considered in violation of the right to information, leaves it up to the subjective discretion of individual judges to keep certain trials under wraps and lets police refuse to disclose the identities of arrested parties. Article 272, for instance, establishes: "The penal process will be public, but the judge can order, if he deems necessary, partial or total reserve in a case, when morality, public interest, or national security warrants it." Article 243 prohibits police from making those arrested available for the inspection of journalists, because this" could affect the image of those arrested and Violate due process." This practice denies both the public and the victims the right to identify those arrested, and it denies the arrested parties the possibility of revealing any arbitrary treatment. The experience demonstrates that presentation to the public is the best guarantee that the prisoner's rights are respected, and in extreme cases, even their right to life. In another matter, the new Code declares that only the interested parties, that is, prosecutors and defense attorneys, will have access to initial court proceedings. Journalists only will be able to have access to cases in the final stage of public trial, and thus deprives citizens the right to be informed if "justice was done."