Biggest protection for journalists is to report quickly and accurately, says reporter with El Salvador’s El Faro

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  • October 23, 2013

By Rodrigo Gomes*

Carlos Martínez is a reporter with Salvadoran news site El Faro who specializes in covering violence in Central America. He's part of the publication's Sala Negra team, which was created in 2011 with the goal of creating a model for permanent coverage of prisons, gangs, organized crime and violence in the region.

For Martínez, their work is different because of their level of immersion. "More than just talking about the topic, it's important to understand the phenomenon that's taking place. And this can only be achieved when you cover a topic for a long time; it is necessary to have the time and the dedication to go to the neighborhoods, sit down, light a cigarette."

El Salvador is the second most violent nation in the world. It has a homicide rate of 80 per every 1,000 inhabitants in a country where almost 8 million people live.

During a panel at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference, Martínez talked about his experience working with some of the gangs and criminal groups responsible for many of the deaths in the country.

Martínez has received the Fernando Benítez Award during the International Book Fair in Guadalajara in 2008 and the Ortega and Gasset Award in 2011 for its investigation "The criminologist in the country of the last things."

In a recent interview, the journalist discussed the state of investigative journalism in El Salvador, the irony of having a journalist for a president and the economic limitations of being an independent journalist.

Rodrigo Gomes: What's the state of investigative journalism in El Salvador?

Carlos Martínez: Central America has achieved, more or less, a certain stability when it comes to journalistic work. It's not exempt of risks and threats, specially when it comes to criminal organizations. the State does not persecute or imprison you for doing your job. The problem gets complicated when the State and the criminal organization are one and the same.

The government also allows you to do your job. But at the same time, the official structures are absolutely under the influence of criminal organizations. Organized crime has infiltrated our police, in El Salvador; it has also polluted our  parliament. In that sense, covering organized crime necessarily implies dealing with the State.

RG: But what can you do when you face pressures?

CM: If we journalists are threatened or pressured, we have the support of important international agencies. But I think the biggest protection is in informing in the least amount of time possible with the most precise and complete news that can be published and verified.

It's important to consider the context surrounding the facts. We Central American journalists have better institutional conditions than our colleagues in Mexico. Normally the Central American conditions are associated with those in Mexico. We don't have institutional aggressions on freedom of the press.

RG: Did the 2009 election of President Mauricio Funes, a former journalist, make any difference for journalism in El Salvador?

CM: Look, our president is always reminding us that he's a journalist. Institutionally, he has not been a facilitator for the press. And he has been very aggressive with opposition media outlets. He has never sat down to talk with El Faro.

He has a TV show similar to the one former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez used to have, which is a monologue that lasts for several hours. It is a space to attack, to discredit his opponents.

In short, he is not a president who talks and the fact that he has been a journalist adds nothing to our daily work.

RG: Is it possible to do independent journalism in El Salvador?

CM: The major media outlets with national circulation are owned by families who have had long-standing ties with the country's political and economic powers. They exert a kind of internal censorship in their coverage depending on whether it affects the parties they belong to and their ideology, or if it affects their advertisers.

I work in a small digital newspaper that is not for profit and has no advertising. We have the advantage of being absolutely free to publish whatever we want. The only impediment to publish something is not having sufficiently confirmed, verified and checked it.

RG : And you have enough readers?

CM: A major problem in Central America is that the Internet does not have enough penetration. So our influence is limited. When a matter is very important, it reaches half the population, at most. We are planning to look at other platforms, such as radio and television, with the collaboration of other media outlets, but it is a very complicated process.

This is the cost of independence: it is very difficult to have a large circulation and reach the poorest parts of the country.

* Rodrigo Gomes is a student journalism senior at the Anhembi Morumbi University in São Paulo.

This article was originally published in the official website official website of the Global Investigative Journalism Conference​.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.