Report to the Midyear Meeting

Panama, Panama

March 6 – 9, 2015

The government of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has had to join in strengthening democracy despite the fact that many of its leaders and some initiatives put under way are seeking to impede that process through pressures, putting restrictions on the distribution of official advertising, shutting down sources of public information or creating a system of laws contrary to freedom of expression.

The risk of journalists being jailed for alleged libel became less when the Supreme Court's Constitutional Tribunal created case law that guarantees the unfettered exercise of freedom of expression. In January it upheld the right to journalistic criticism of public officials, stemming from a lawsuit filed by a police officer against La Prensa Gráfica.

There are worrisome indications that limits could come to be placed on freedom of expression.

There is a systematic blockade of access to interviews with public officials, including President Sánchez Cerén. Interviews and responses are denied, including those requests made in writing through official channels.

Both the leftist government and the governing party while it is true they maintain a "balanced" discourse with all the news media they favor a group of them aligned with the governmental policies. There is a tendency, currently moderate, to foster the publicly-owned news media and give them priority and at least greater preponderance than the privately-owned ones. Official advertising is offered to them to the detriment of privately-owned media and access. In this network are included the national television channel, Radio Nacional radio station and a number of community radio stations.

While a law encourages transparency and free access to information the government raises obstacles to the work of investigative journalism. For example, the Presidency has declared "for reasons of national security" details such as those of the costs of trips abroad by former president Mauricio Funes. The leading news media insisted on the request, to the point that the case came to be "tried" by the Access to Information Institute. At the hearing – in which access by journalists was sought to be denied – it was decided that it was classified information, due to reasons of national security.

There is some tendency in the legal sector and among certain groups of politicians to threaten to pass more laws against freedom of expression on the pretext of being in the private and intimate interest of the people. This trend, which at times has a certain relevance in society, is joined by the most radical sectors of the left that want more regulation of independent and privately-owned media such as bills in the Legislative Assembly, among them those on public media and community radio stations.

The Electricity and Communications General Superintendence (Siget) has favored some television media linked with the government, giving them privileged positions in the grant of radio and television frequencies.

Legislative Assembly President Sigfrido Reyes denied making any statements about his participation in the company Terrenos e Inversiones (Lands and Investments – TERREIN), which paid $440,000 in cash for several lots on a piece of land owned by the Armed Forces Social Welfare (IPSFA). He decided to take out legal proceedings against La Prensa Gráfica for defamation. And although he decided not to use the new Law on Rectification and Right of Reply he publicly insisted that he be given the right of reply. When it has been sought on other occasions he had said that he does not make statements to journalists of "the defamatory press."

Julio Olivo, chief justice of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the country's top electoral body, said that he would not answer questions from La Prensa Gráfica. During the election campaign he drastically reduced the amount of official advertising in that newspaper as a clear weapon of punishment. He was bothered by a strong interview in which he was asked about his relationship with a head of the FMLN party and his participation in favor of the presidential candidacy of that political party in the 2014 campaign.

The head of El Salvador's Major Soccer League (LMF) in late January, 2015 decided to increase to $75 (more than 13% over the Valued Added Tax (VAT), the cost per credential to enable journalists to go in and cover soccer matches. Prior to that date the annual payment was $30 per credential. He later rectified the action, although there continues to be a charge for having a credential.

In November a group of agents of the Police Anti-Narcotics Division (Dan) detained for almost an hour a Diario de Hoy reporter in San Ignacio, Chalatenango province, on the border with Honduras. In what was said to be a "routine check" the police searched the car that he was driving. Some months earlier a team from the online newspaper El Faro was also subjected to this intimidating action.