El Salvador

Report to the Midyear Meeting 2023
April, 25-27

The government of Nayib Bukele asserts that there is freedom of expression in the country by saying, "There is not a single journalist captured, or media closed." However, the independent media and journalists suffered restrictions and direct or veiled threats from pro-government legislators and senior government officials during this period. The press also suffered cyber attacks and systematic espionage actions, for which one outlet left the country, and another closed.

This situation occurs due to the emergency regime and the laws that threaten freedom of expression under the pretext of fighting gangs. In this climate, a police chief told the agents they are "the judges of the street." The same official celebrated on Twitter that the Bukele government has "unified" and "concentrated" the powers of the State. The unfortunate statement was later withdrawn.

Under the State of Emergency or Siege, many fear being jailed without evidence and due process if they criticize the government. As a result, more than 67,000 people were arrested, a hundred died in prison, and the government released more than 3,000 by admitting their innocence.

The anti-press freedom climate led to the departure of a dozen journalists from the country and led the digital newspaper El Faro to transfer its operations to Costa Rica. El Faro and its journalists have been harassed, linked to gangs, described as "enemies of the country," and harassed by government officials or "opinionists" and through pro-government accounts on social networks.

"During the Bukele administration, El Faro and its employees have been the target of delegitimization and defamation campaigns in the Presidential House. We have faced physical surveillance and threats, espionage with Pegasus, harassment of advertisers, and defamation of officials and deputies of the official party. In addition, we have faced multiple audits by the Ministry of Finance, with fabricated accusations that we continue to answer and appeal in all the corresponding administrative and judicial instances, despite knowing there is no longer a division of powers in El Salvador. The president even used a national radio and television network to falsely accuse us of money laundering," El Faro said.

On December 14, a team from La Prensa Gráfica covering progress in the construction of the mega-prison in Tecoluca, San Vicente, was intimidated by the police, the military, and prison custodians. As a result, the three journalists were forced to delete photos and videos.

On March 15, three journalists from El Diario de Hoy were detained while covering an event related to constructing a bridge in the Cerrón Grande reservoir guards from the Lempa River Hydroelectric Executive Commission. Although there was no restriction signage, they were detained to review images captured with a drone.

On March 31, Armed Forces members of El Salvador (FAES) detained two El Diario de Hoy journalists in La Campanera, Soyapango municipality. They were prohibited from doing their coverage and required an official permit to enter.

On February 8, police officers detained a documentalist from Inter Diario and the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) for an hour near the University of El Salvador campus. The agents took photos of the communicator, their identity documents, and the vehicle.

Some people have been victims of repression, harassment, and illegal dismissal from their jobs in state institutions for being relatives of independent journalists.

It is common for trolls identified with Bukelismo and pro-government representatives to continue harassing and threatening independent journalists. For example, the Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES) denounced that an official threatened the digital media El Faro and the digital magazine Gato Encerrado.

APES also recorded at least 14 stigmatizing statements against journalists and the media. For example, since March 15, the independent journalist Glenda Girón has received digital harassment, stigmatizing statements from a deputy from the ruling Nuevas Ideas party, and trolls and anonymous social network accounts.

According to Reuters's US State Department report, the government "uses paid influencers and 'probably bot farms' to tweet pro-government messages 'tens of thousands of times' on a given topic while hiding the source to 'create the appearance of authentic grassroots support.' In addition, the report reveals how political discourse is manipulated, government critics are harassed in digital media, and armies of fake accounts that activate in "milliseconds" are used to simulate overwhelming support for Bukele.

In December, 15 journalists from El Faro filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the Pegasus spyware, with which their phones were illegally tapped. The Knight First Amendment Institute of Columbia University filed the complaint against the Israeli firm NSO Group that developed the software.

On August 10, 2022, the Attorney General's Office summoned two journalists from Gato Encerrado after APES denounced espionage with Pegasus against more than 30 journalists. The subpoena was based on reports from the CitizenLab and AccessNow platforms that determined that the phones of three Gato Encerrado journalists had been infected with Pegasus as part of a total of 35 cases against journalists. However, the Prosecutor's Office did not conclude the investigations or report on them.

Radio and television media have stopped disseminating political information unfavorable to the government or monitoring its actions and instead emphasize health, entertainment, and entertainment issues.

Added to this is the cessation of operations of Teleprensa Canal 33, a medium that fought to maintain its independence despite the ruling party's veto and the difficult economic situation. Other radio and television media outlets have openly or veiledly supported the ruling party, refraining from disseminating balanced or contrasted information.

The opacity in government offices grows more and more when they are asked for public information. As a result, the Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP) has become invisible.

However, civic and union efforts to strengthen oversight and transparency stand out, such as the "Defense of Press Freedom in El Salvador" project, an agreement between the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) and APES, funded by USAID. Its objective is to "strengthen the operational and management capacity of APES to consolidate the protection of journalists in the current context, where journalism, particularly investigative journalism, are under attack."