El Salvador


78th General Assembly

October 27 – 30, 2022

Madrid, Spain


Under the Nayib Bukele administration, freedom of the press and freedom of expression languish amid censorship and fear. Animosity against independent media is encouraged by officials in the Executive Branch or ruling party legislators in Congress.

Independent media and news sources are systematically intimidated and threatened. This generates self-censorship of sources, not only with local media but also with international news outlets. As a result, at least 10 journalists went into exile during this period - after being singled out by government officials or receiving anonymous threats on social networks.

In March, the government decreed a state of emergency or martial law aimed at rounding up gang members. The mechanism put a hold on citizen protections, such as the right to due process and limits on the number of days of detention without formal charges. It also includes direct threats to freedom of the press, because it allows for the prosecution of communicators if the authorities consider that there is "information favorable or apologetic regarding criminal groups."

Since March, the government has imprisoned 52,000 people, whose preventive detentions were finalized in hearings of up to 500 inmates at a time - with one "public defender" representing all the detainees.

The worst effect has been widespread self-censorship due to the ambiguity of the regulation - since any content relating to the treatment or mistreatment of prisoners can be qualified as apology.

Several journalists were detained under the state of emergency. Élmer Vladimir Romero Martínez - broadcaster of the community radio station Juventud - was arrested and accused of collaborating with gangs. He has been held incommunicado since May and his health has deteriorated. His family filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Supreme Court of Justice.

Víctor Barahona - presenter of an opinion program on Apopa's Canal 29 and NotiApopa - was also arrested in June, accused of collaborating with gangs.

Luis Alexander Rivas Samayoa - a tweeter who on August 21 posted a message about the deployment of security on a beach due to the visit of one of President Bukele's brothers - was also arrested and placed under the emergency regime. On Twitter, the de facto attorney general, Rodolfo Delgado, confirmed that "an arrest warrant has been issued for Luis Alexander Rivas Samayoa. One thing is freedom of expression and another is to attack the integrity of people. Freedom of expression cannot be used to commit crimes." Rivas was formally accused of "contempt" - a crime (already abolished in many countries of the continent, due to its anachronism) punishable by up to five years in prison and consisting of "offending" by word or deed the "honor or decorum" of an official, or threatening him in person or by means of a written document. What is surprising about the accusation is that the president's brother is not an official.

The Armed Forces of El Salvador (FAES) and the National Civil Police (PNC) execute the arrests under the state of emergency - and take the liberty to threaten or detain anyone who documents the proceedings with videos or photos. This happened on August 20 to Yessica Hompanera - a photojournalist for El Diario de Hoy. A group of police officers detained her for taking photos in front of the old Central Reserve Bank (BCR) building - an area with no signs indicating any prohibition to take photos or film. The agents harassed her and threatened to confiscate her cell phone, camera and delete the journalistic material. The action ended after a request from her colleagues at El Diario de Hoy and the Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES).

The newspaper La Prensa Gráfica reported that French journalist Laurence Cuvillier, France24 correspondent for Central America, noted the fear and silence when she visited the country. "I saw a fear of speaking out and, although I knew I was going to run into that situation, I did not imagine it would be on this scale. I had only seen this in Nicaragua," she said. Cuvillier was working on a documentary about the state of emergency, but she ran into many obstacles. She had arranged interviews with relatives of prisoners who died in prison (80, according to human rights organizations), but ultimately the sources declined to concede interviews.

For fear of reprisals, many radio, press and television media changed their contents to broadcast only red, social or international news and did not report on anything questioning the government. Independent journalists retired or were removed from news and opinion programs because they were uncomfortable to the government.

Several citizens and professionals who are key sources for the media - such as lawyer Bertha de León - denounced that investigations were opened against them for being critical of the government. De León had to request asylum in Mexico, considering that she has "no interest in a country where there is no freedom of expression, thought or work" - as she told TVX television station. Other critical female lawyers are attacked in social networks with threats, hate messages and misogyny by individuals linked to the government or trolls clearly biased towards the government.

Journalism professionals and professionals from different disciplines also face the danger of being forced to join a professional association - under a new Constitution promoted by the government. The current Magna Carta forbids collegiality, because it lends itself to subject professionals to the manipulations of the regime in power - and whoever opposes or criticizes it would be in danger of having their license suspended or cancelled.

The government neutralized the Institute of Access to Public Information and the laws governing transparency on the use of public funds.

Data regarding the use of public funds and any purchases or investments made by the government since 2020 is being systematically withheld for a period of seven years. This prevents any disclosure of wrongdoings and misappropriation of funds that could be revealed in view of the upcoming presidential and legislative elections. All the institutions that should watch over probity and access to public information were neutralized through the co-optation of their boards of directors - where the government placed compliant individuals.

The Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA) - administered by the Jesuits - pointed out that "El Salvador has returned to the obscurantism of the past, public affairs are managed with the greatest secrecy."

According to the UCA, in less than 10 years the country went from having one of the best laws on access to public information to a reality in which knowing what the government does and how it spends its resources depends on the will or carelessness of the officials.