El Salvador

EL SALVADOR Freedom of the press in the country faces not only political but also legal threats, especially from sectors that hide behind legal covers to pretend to tie up with new laws the labor of journalists and the press in general. The new telecommunications law, passed by the Legislative Assembly September 13, requires radio and television stations to join in a nationwide hookup whenever ordered to do so by the government - a hotly debated provision. Under the law, private parties will be granted broadcast licenses on leases granted in public auction. Radio and television stations already on the air at the time the law went into effect are grandfathered in for 20 years. Radio stations will have to pay annual fees ranging from 1,200 to 36,000 colones and television stations from 8,000 to 200,000 colones. El Diario de Hoy and the Association of Participating Radios (ARPAS) are among those opposing the new legislation, saying it threatens press freedom because the fees are based on technical criteria without taking into account the situation of each radio station, such as the non-commercial stations which would run the risk of having to close because of financial difficulties, they say. The association has appealed to the Supreme Court for special protection for the small community radios, which broadcast only for a few hours a day and in a radius of only some 10 to 20 miles. Meanwhile, the Criminal Minors Act enacted in March 1995 remains in effect, empowering judges to order a news blackout in cases under investigation and withhold from the press details of the case and those involved in it. Another restrictive measure is the Temporary Emergency Law, which deals with delinquency and organized crime and has been on the books since March 22, 1996. In Article 10, Sub-Section 3, this law provides that police or others who break the law by identifying defendants, witnesses or victims will be subject to a fine of up to 25,000 colones, in additon to any further criminal culpability. Attacks on the press and threats from politicians continue. Although the official government policy is to respect press freedom, some actions taken by the courts and police have negatively impacted it. Other important events during this period were; El Diario de Hoy has denounced the on-going practice of some government officials and the press officials in government offices who provide information in preferential way to news media that are not critical of the government. On July 12, the editor of the San Salvador newspaper Co-Latino was arrested on libel charges filed by police officer Rafael Antonio Garciaguirre after the paper ran a report about alleged police corruption. Co-Latino, a newspaper cooperative, had published a front page article on February 6, 1996, about what it described as corruption in the National Civil Police and implicating Garciaguirre. The Fifth Circuit Judge of the San Salvador Criminal Court, Andres Pineda Chicas, issued an arrest warrant for the journalist on the grounds he had "stained the image" of Garciaguirre and failing to diclose the source of his information. His trial is now pending in the Fifth Criminal Court. The court has refused to supersede in favor of Valencia who is out on bail. The case remains open. Following several cases of threats and legal and police harassment against journalists to force them to reveal their sources, in July opposition legislators introduced before the Legislative Assembly a reform law proposal that would reform the Penal Code to include journalists in Article 202, which requires journalists to serve as witnesses. Police raided the home of Diario de Hoy reporter Violeta Rivera, member of a team that had reported on an investigation linking police to the murder of university student Adriano Vilanova on the outskirts of San Salvador. The police apologized for the raid, which they said had been merely routine, but which El Diario de Hoy said it was a direct result of the investigative reporting. On September 4, La Prensa Grafica 's reporter Liliana Fuentes Monroy was verbally and physically attacked by former ARENA president Juan Jose Domenech, when she tried to interview the politician at an event in the cemetary in the city of San Miguel. Domenech apparently grabbed the journalist by the neck and threw her against a tombstone, snapped her credential and took off her camara, pulling out the film. Domenech later apologized and denied the journalist's account of the incident, although he did admit to taking her press pass and camera and to exposing the film.