El Salvador

73rd General Assembly
Salt Lake City, Utah

Freedom of expression in El Salvador has been deteriorating in recent years, as reflected in international rankings.

The online media outlets El Faro and Revista Factum received threats after publishing investigative work that revealed the involvement of police officers in extrajudicial executions.

One of these threats, from what appeared to be a group of police officers, was disseminated on the Twitter account "Defensores Azules" [Blue Defenders]. The tweet stated, "I need to see you like Christian Poveda @RevistaFactum @_ElFARO_ dead in the hands of your protectors."

Poveda, a French-Spanish filmmaker, was killed on September 2, 2009, by gang members after filming an unreleased documentary on life and death in a gang.

On 22 August, Revista Factum published an article of investigative journalism titled "In the private world of the police death squad." For three months it monitored two Whatsapp chat groups consisting of more than 40 police officers who revealed internal communications and crimes committed by an assassination crew in the police force.

Salvador Martínez, communications director for the Office of the Attorney General, confirmed that an investigation had been opened into the threats against the journalists of Revista Factum, although no formal complaint had been lodged.

The website El Faro has published the results of investigative work conducted in July 2015, February 2016, and March 2017 on how police officers allegedly killed 14 people in three different actions, in alleged "confrontations" with gang members.

Vice President Óscar Ortiz limited himself to saying, "One must knock on wood so that nothing will happen to a journalist." In contrast, Attorney General Douglas Meléndez cautioned the police officers not to threaten journalists.

Héctor Silva Ávalos, editor of Revista Factum, is still being targeted in new forms of judicial pressure. An appeals court overturned his earlier acquittal by a trial court.

Silva Ávalos has been accused of defamation by businessman Enrique Rais, who is wanted by the Salvadoran justice system. Rais's attorneys have filed a new complaint against the journalist for the offenses of violating private communications and gaining access to communications in connection with the publication of news stories they consider defamatory.

Silva is being prosecuted for publishing a story that described how three airplanes owned by Rais were under investigation by authorities in the U.S. state of Florida for alleged involvement in drug trafficking.

Rais, who owns the garbage collection company that disposes of solid waste in the San Salvador metropolitan area, is on the run from charges of bribery, document fraud, and procedural fraud.

Another threat facing the press is the proposed law on the National Violence Prevention System (SINAPREV), which could easily be used as a way to control the independent media.

Article 30 of this law states: "The media shall help promote violence prevention, coexistence, and a culture of peace among the population, striving for ethical self-regulation of nonviolent content and information so as not to harm the mental health of the population, without undermining the observance of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of information."

The law requires media outlets to "help" promote a culture of peace and "strive for the ethical self-regulation of nonviolent content and information," which lends itself to the dangerous possibility of subjective and arbitrary manipulation of the law. Groups claiming to represent "civil society" that are tied to the ruling party have appeared at the Legislative Assembly to lobby for passage of this law. This reveals the government's interest in exerting control over the media.

The defense has been blatantly trying to delay the trial of five defendants charged with carrying out cyberattacks on the websites of La Prensa Gráfica and El Diario de Hoy in 2015.

Through various maneuvers, the trial has been postponed twice on motions by the defense. There is overwhelming evidence against the defendants, including a report by the U.S. Justice Department showing how the websites were cloned and false information was posted.

The defendants are the communications director of the San Salvador mayor's office and four other people who were working for a city contractor on online communication projects. The name of Mayor Nayib Bukele has been mentioned in the trial, although no charges have been filed against him.

Bukele has brought two lawsuits against La Prensa Gráfica for US$6 million claiming that he was harmed when the newspaper linked him to the case of the cyberattacks. An appeals court, however, rejected the lawsuits on the grounds that Bukele had not exhausted his avenues of legal recourse in an effort to set the facts straight.

Previously, the mayor had sued La Prensa Gráfica for raising questions about a municipal contract for purchase of a video surveillance camera. The court found that the mayor had failed to give a statement even though the newspaper asked him about his position, and it further held that the reporting was duly supported and documented.

On August 22, the vehicle of journalist Jorge Beltrán, a contributor to El Diario de Hoy, was the target of an acid attack.

The attack occurred one day after El Diario de Hoy published a report on the disappearance of a former guerrilla fighter wanted by the justice system for the killing of two U.S. soldiers after a helicopter was brought down in Lolotique, San Miguel, in 1990. The newspaper reported that an arrest warrant is pending against two other former guerrilla fighters in connection with the same incident. An insulting note was left on the vehicle.

Beltrán has dedicated himself to reporting on issues related to gangs, drug trafficking, violence, and special features for the Focus investigative team of El Diario de Hoy.

Raúl López, deputy minister of justice and public security, was criticized after he made a suggestive comment in response to a female journalist who asked him about the killing of police officers.

"My dear honey, let's go have a coffee someday and I'll let you interview me then," the official told the journalist for the television news show El Noticiero on Channel 6.

After the storm of criticism that was immediately unleashed on social media, López publicly apologized to the journalist, the journalists' union, and Salvadoran women in general.

The Democracy, Transparency and Justice Foundation, a private entity that aims to strengthen the rule of law, is promoting a specific law to protect journalists and human rights advocates.

This bill is being debated with journalists and other members of the journalists' union before a final draft is submitted to the Legislative Assembly.

Some of the features of this future proposal include creating a special prosecutor's office to protect journalists, implementing precautionary measures in cases involving physical or online threats, and bringing greater legal force to bear in the support of the work of journalists.