El Salvador

During this period both positive and negative events have occurred in regard to freedom of the press. On the positive side, on September 8 the majority of congressional deputies decided to pass the package of changes to the Penal Code (reforming articles 38, 177, 178, 179, 180, 183-A, 191-B and 191-C) which fundamentally favor the freedom of expression of all citizens and protect the work of journalists. The essential change is elimination of imprisonment as a penalty for the crimes of slander, defamation, and libel, replacing it with fines, and also setting limits for those fines, such that they will not be at the mercy of the capricious criterion of exaggerated levels of compensation. The reforms include calculations of the fine-days based on the wages of the person who is convicted. These civil sentences range from 50 to 360 days of fine. They also point out the criteria upon which a judge should handle these cases and considerations that must be met before a possible suit becomes a concrete criminal case against a person, or a journalist and the media for which he works. The reforms were approved by the representatives of the parties of the right land center-right, ARENA, GANA, PDC, and PCN. The government party, FMLN, did not give its support. Until these reforms go into effect, uncertainty remains due to the opening given by a resolution from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice which, in September 2010, decided to eliminate legal protection of journalists’ work and opened the doors to baseless lawsuits against the media. One of the best known of these suits was brought against the president of La Prensa Gráfica, along with the editor of the paper, Rodolfo Dutriz, and two of his journalists. They were sued by an active-duty military man who got involved by an undercover agent in an investigation of drug trafficking connected to the Los Zetas cartel. The military man initiated a criminal suit, without asking for the right to reply, in different courts and asked for between 12 and 16 years of prison against the directors and journalists for what he considered to be repeated slander. He also asked for compensation of $6 million. After six months of attempts to initiate a case, two judges at the first level and four at the second level determined that there was insufficient basis for building a case, considering that the media had complied with the requirements for proof of valid journalistic sources, and leaving the door open for a countersuit. The process of creating a law requires that a bill passed by congress be submitted for review by the President of the Republic, who can decide to agree with it, to be in partial agreement with it, or to disagree with it. The first option contemplates that the president will not make comments but send it directly for publication in the Official Diary as a legislative decree and in a few days it becomes law. In the second case, the president may comment on the bill and send it back to congress, where lawmakers decide whether to take those comments into account or not, and they may vote once again with a simple majority to send it to the Official Diary so that it may take effect. The third option is when the president is totally against the bill and chooses to veto it and return it to congress. In this last case, lawmakers need a qualified majority to overcome the veto and send it for publication. In El Salvador, congress has 84 deputies. A simple majority is 43 votes and a qualified majority is 56 votes. For the case of legal reforms favoring freedom of expression, the president made a series of comments and has returned the decree to congress. One of his comments that is considered to be more delicate has to do with the right of reply, which was introduced in the reforms as a means to avoid a lawsuit, but in his comments, the president wants to strengthen it from his point of view and he proposes it more as a measure of conciliation with an offended person, but with a lawsuit or a court case already underway. It is important to mention that the president maintained the essence of the reforms, that is, elimination of imprisonment in crimes against honor. On the negative side, the FMLN party submitted a bill for a law on rectification and right of reply that contemplates sanctions against the media, fines, suspension of licenses, and a process that leaves in the hands of third parties the determination of what should be destined or characterized for a right of reply. The FMLN has even pushed for creation of an ad-hoc commission to study this proposal. It is observed that in this bill, there is a clear intent to control and threaten the activities of the media. On the other hand, many journalists face multiple pressures daily from public servants (from the President of the Republic, Mauricio Funes) for reporting on events that do not favor the government in power. Government sources are closed to providing broad and objective information. Another clear example of the above is that the Minister of Public Safety, Manuel Melgar, who has frequently frustrated journalistic endeavor by considering that the media foster an incorrect perception of reality by dedicating “too much space” to the violent crimes that occur every day. At the present time, El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the region, with an average of 12 murders per day. In addition, the government uses its advertizing budget in such a way as to “award” those “condescending” media and “punish” those that are critical of the present administration and that scrutinize the work of its employees. This year has also been marked by other events that, although in an isolated manner, have affected journalists directly. Cases have been recorded of some journalists who have had their laptops “stolen" that were provided for them by the media companies they work for. Even when these events can be seen as “just one more case” of common crime, there is suspicion that something else lies behind the thefts to try to intimidate journalists. The way in which such equipment has been stolen sustains this suspicion. Representatives of community radio stations from deep inside the country have also reported harassment and threats for opposing projects like the mining plan in the Cabañas zone in the central north part of El Salvador. On the other hand, those groups, in collaboration with some sectors of the government, have made an effort to modify laws and grant them much more room on the radio dial, going against current law, the spirit of free competition, and rights acquired legally and historically. In one of the most negative events of this half year, a cameraman from channel 33, Teleprensa, Alfredo Antonio Hurtado Núñez, 41, was murdered on April 25 in a public transportation vehicle in the development called Jardines de San Bartolo in the city of Ilopango, department of San Salvador. According to police reports three subjects boarded the vehicle, approached the seat where the journalist was sitting and shot him at close range three times. Investigators from the Visual Inspection Unit of the National Civil Police (PNC) confirmed that the impacts of the bullets caused instant death, and they left him lying on one of the sides of the bus. They discarded the motive of robbery because the victim still had his personal possessions with him, including cash. From the first moment on, hypotheses pointed to a group of gangs in the area that had been the object of takes by Hurtado after a crime reported in the area. His videos had served to identify suspects of the crime, although not confirmed. Police authorities had the results of their investigations four and a half months later. On September 5 past they arrested two members of the MS gang who were sent to the Special Court. The General Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic will ask for 35 years of prison for the suspects of this crime. At the current time they are both in custody awaiting trial.