El Salvador

Report to the Midyear Meeting
April, 19-22 2022
The government of Nayib Bukele has established a legal - and de facto - siege to choke freedom of expression and press. Threats, discrediting and hate speech against journalists and independent media are common. Several penal reforms, a gag law and surveillance and persecution using Pegasus software - and other technological tools - are part of the array of anti-press restrictions.

Bukele and his officials discredit information that affects his image. A high-ranking official threatened legal action to force journalists to break professional secrecy and reveal their sources.

With the excuse of the war on gangs and the declaration of the State of Emergency, journalists are exposed to judicial censorship, which leads to cases of self-censorship - with new provisions that criminalize reporting on gangs.

On April 5, the Legislative Assembly approved a gag law - with ambiguous language - that allows the authorities more discretion to criminalize reporting on gangs. The reform punishes with up to 15 years in prison the publication of content that, in the opinion of an authority, can be considered as "gang messages" or that cause "panic" in the population.

The new provisions state that "the same sanction will be incurred by those who, using Communication and Information Technologies, radio, television, written or digital media, reproduce and transmit messages or notices originated or presumably originated by said delinquent groups, which could generate anxiety and panic in the general population."

The legal secretary of the Presidency, Conan Castro, assured that the aim is to "safeguard the mental health of the people affected by the anxiety generated by the different media."

Since last year, the Legislative and Judicial bodies have been aligned with the Executive - which has led to irregularities and abuses. Judges who have issued independent resolutions have been demoted or removed from their positions.

Reporters from different media have been detained by the police and physically assaulted.

Vice President Félix Ulloa, congressmen Romeo Auerbach and Carlos Hermann Bruch and their supporters have lashed out on social networks against independent media and journalists who have reported on the rise in homicides, which left more than 70 dead in two days - and for which Bukele's government declared a State of Emergency.

The Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES) reported that during the plenary meeting of the Assembly to approve the State of Emergency, Congressman Auerbach referred to independent journalists as "chiquiperiodistas" (kid reporters) and "dundos" (fools) and pointed out that journalists were "very happy because there were so many dead."

Bukele called anthropologist Juan Martinez d'Aubuisson - who writes for the newspaper El Faro - "trash, nephew of a genocide," based on a segment from an interview on gangs - taken out of context.
"President Bukele, I find the way you refer to me and my work regrettable. I invite you to see the full interview and to review the academic and journalistic work I have done for more than a decade," replied Martinez - who decided to leave the country due to the pressure and animosity generated towards him from the ruling party.

In a tweet, Bukele tried to link the media and other organizations with the gangs and violence, saying that "a consequence of all those people, NGOs, media, political parties and even "friendly" governments having come out to defend the gang members... and now the Salvadoran people will be clear about who has been behind the bloodshed of their families and friends."

To make a "defense of crime" and to "collaborate with gangs" are some of the accusations that representatives of the Salvadoran government make against journalists of the digital newspaper El Faro.
The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) warned that the recent reforms that punish - with up to 15 years in prison - those who disseminate messages about gangs through any media or digital platforms violate freedom of expression. The Rapporteur's Office warned that the way both amendments are drafted, they "activate risks of severe criminalization of legitimate activities in society and of special importance for democratic life - such as journalism, the defense of human rights, parliamentary activity and academic research, among others."

Bukele's government has denied that it is an attack on freedom of expression, and claims as proof that "the media have continued to publish on a variety of platforms and social networks on the subject of gangs, and there has been no persecution whatsoever."

However, the Rapporteur's Office indicated that "the breadth and vagueness of the terms used (in the reforms) to describe the prohibited conducts conflict with international standards that require that all limits to freedom of expression be expressly, specifically and clearly set forth in the law. The aforementioned ambiguity of the wording makes it difficult to distinguish between expressions that are punishable and those that are not."

APES denounced that officials and people close to the regime threaten to report journalists to the Public Prosecutor's Office for exposing obscure procedures of the regime, such as the release of a gang member - after which an official said he would report the author of the article to the Public Prosecutor's Office for having "repeated messages related to gangs with the purpose of frightening the population even though article 345 of the Penal Code prohibits it."

The humanitarian organization Cristosal and APES warned about the danger that journalists could be charged for violating the gag law and be punished with up to 15 years in prison.

A photojournalist from El Diario de Hoy was assaulted by soldiers at a checkpoint in a neighborhood in the eastern sector of San Salvador - despite the fact that he identified himself as press. The soldiers forced the reporter to kneel down, took away his camera and erased the photos he had taken.

From pro-government social network accounts, journalists from El Faro, La Prensa Gráfica and El Diario de Hoy have been accused of having ties with gang members and that some of them work as "posts" (lookouts).

The pro-government congressman Bruch lashed out at Mexican journalist Diego Fonseca - columnist for The New York Times - for questioning President Bukele's tweets and his public safety plans.

Journalist Oscar Martínez - of El Faro - reported that he received threats against him and his family on social networks - accusing him of funding gangs.

The report "Women Journalists and Press Freedom in El Salvador," written by the Fundación para el Debido Proceso (DLPF) (Foundation for Due Process), revealed that women journalists have seen an increase in violence and discrimination against them during this government."

Journalist Carmen Rodríguez - foreign correspondent of La Prensa Gráfica - reported that she has received threatening messages on social networks - warning her not to return to the country. She reported that personal photos were taken out of context and displayed along with denigrating and humiliating messages.

Journalist Mariana Belloso - of La Semana con Mariana - stated that they cannot even count on the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office to denounce the aggressions.

An investigation carried out by the international organizations Access Now, Front Line Defenders, The Citizen Lab, Amnesty International, Fundación Acceso, and SocialTIC, confirmed that 31 journalists were illegally spied on using Pegasus software - among them journalists from El Faro, GatoEncerrado, El Diario de Hoy, La Prensa Gráfica, Disruptiva and independent journalists.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) held a hearing on March 16 in which the State denied any involvement in espionage and stated that "under no circumstances" does it persecute persons or entities that are critical of the government.

The IACHR responded that the unlawful surveillance with Pegasus represents a serious attack against democracy and called on the State to urgently investigate. The State insisted that it is conducting a "thorough investigation" - but the denouncing organizations denied having been officially consulted.

In early February, the Legislative Assembly, dominated by Bukele's party - Nuevas Ideas - approved reform bill that authorizes "digital undercover agents" to collect personal and public information stored on any electronic device when investigating computer crimes.

The reform bill indicates that the Prosecutor's Office could issue a written order to the Police "listing the digital undercover operations that may be necessary" - in case of investigating crimes under the Special Law Against Computer Crimes and in "other special criminal laws."

According to this reform bill, the "digital undercover agents" will be able to access cell phones, computers and any other device that stores information of the private and professional lives of citizens - for which they will be able to legally use espionage software such as Pegasus.

In mid 2021, the Minister of Security, Gustavo Villatoro, reportedly revealed that "we are monitoring many journalists who are no longer engaging in morbid communication, but rather in a clear attempt to justify crime."

Subsequently, the legal advisor to the Presidency, Javier Argueta, warned of forcing journalists to break professional secrecy in order to reveal sources.

APES reported that in addition to physical violence and cyber espionage, the State imposes secrecy in everything related to the administrative and operational work of the State Intelligence Agency, to purchases and contracts during the first year of the pandemic - and to everything related to the implementation of health and public safety policies.

The tendency and hate speech against journalists come from President Bukele himself. Weeks ago, he described as "stupidity" the news that members of the Salvadoran diaspora in the U.S. avoid expressing critical opinions or questioning decisions of his government for fear of being detained when they visit the country.

Vice President Ulloa went on a tirade against GatoEncerrado magazine about the secrecy in the process of drafting the new constitution. Ulloa responded by calling them "activists disguised as journalists." His team also called them "pseudo-journalists."

La Prensa Gráfica was fined US$ 23,827 by the Department of Labor. The department claimed labor misconduct, but the penalty was imposed after the newspaper published that the department was involved in a criminal investigation against gang members for the illegal collection of US$ 300 bonuses during the forced quarantine of 2020.