Protection law for journalists in El Salvador still out of reach, even as attacks grow

In what is perhaps one of the most critical moments for journalism in El Salvador, the approval of the Law for the Protection of Journalists seems farther and farther away.

The bill, which has been in the works since 2017, seeks to be very comprehensive, covering issues from labor rights to the different types of violence suffered by journalists, also including a gender perspective for problems affecting women journalists. This would include institutions such as the Ministry of Labor, the Attorney General's Office, the Salvadoran Institute for Women, among others.

“That is a bit what we are looking for with this bill,” Angélica Cárcamo, president of the Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES, for its acronym in Spanish) told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). "It is not only going to relate the issue of labor rights, but also how to deal with all the violations that are happening to journalists in a much more comprehensive way.”

Presidente de El Salvador, Nayib Bukele. Foto: Carlos Barrera/El Faro. (Cortesía.)

President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele. (Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro/ Courtesy)

However, with the swearing in of the new pro-government majority National Assembly on May 1, and taking into account the unfriendly relations of President Nayib Bukele with the press, the prospects for approval of this kind of law don’t look good, according to Cárcamo.

“I see it as complicated as to whether there is an interest in taking it up, especially because this Assembly has the same line as President Bukele, who has been very critical of journalists, rather than criticizing he has dedicated himself to attacking journalists. So I don't think there is any interest in addressing it, at least not at this time,” Cárcamo said. “We are waiting for the situation to calm down a bit to see what can be done, but it looks very difficult.”

According to Cárcamo, in addition to the fact that it is likely that this new legislature does not have the interest because “it is approving things in accordance with the interests of the government,” they do not even know which deputies will be in the Legislation and Constitutional Points Commission of the Assembly, which would be in charge of reviewing this bill.

For this reason, for the last two weeks, APES and other entities have dedicated themselves not only to monitoring the decisions of the new Assembly, but also the attacks against journalists. For example, the new Assembly restricted access for non-official media outlets, some deputies refuse to give statements and the Assembly website is not updated, Cárcamo said.

Attacks on journalists are a worrisome issue. In the last global press freedom ranking from Reporters Without Borders, El Salvador lost eight positions and fell to 82nd. This drop was the largest in the region and the third largest in the world.

Carlos Domínguez, RSF correspondent in El Salvador, highlighted how the organization has been alerted to the authoritarian attitude of Bukele who, according to its records, has a permanent attitude of attacks and threats against critical and independent media in the country, he told LJR.

“This sets up a very hostile labor landscape for journalists, which is encouraged by various forms of stigmatization of the work of the press,” Domínguez said. “The narrative of creating the image of the press as enemy of the people is dangerous because it encourages distrust of journalists in general and encourages the official version as the only one.”

Since Bukele took office in August 2019, attacks on journalists have drawn international attention. Just within the framework of electoral coverage of Feb. 28, 2021, APES registered 58 attacks against the press. During 2020, it registered 125 attacks against journalists, mainly by security forces, such as the National Civil Police (PNC). Precisely that year, a special commission created to analyze these cases determined that harassment against the press is directed by public authorities.

APES has even detected cases of forced displacement of journalists, which, according to Cárcamo, are not disclosed because the issue is “sensitive.” “And because, unfortunately, the national system is not effective enough to be able to assist these colleagues. In fact, some who have reported have ended up leaving the country irregularly because the procedures are very bureaucratic, for example. And this bill talks about how to optimize and improve care for people who go through this scenario,” Cárcamo added.

Precisely because of this situation, the bill to protect journalists contemplates the creation of a National Commission for the Protection of Journalists with the objective of coordinating, in an inter-institutional manner, all actions to protect journalists when they are in danger or to prevent any action against them.

According to Cárcamo, the idea is for this Commission to be led by organizations that are part of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists — such as APES, the José Simeón Cañas Central American University, the Foundation for Studies for the Application of Law (Fespad), the Office of the Attorney for the Defense of Human Rights, among others — but that state entities such as the Attorney General of the Republic and the Prosecutor General of the Republic, to mention a few, could also be part.

“That is a little of what is said about this National Commission, among its functions is, for example, establishing communication channels, creating inter-institutional actions to apply this law, coordinating or preparing, for example, some actions so that the Protection Law, which also speaks of a series of prevention mechanisms, is applied,” Cárcamo explained. “And responding or dealing efficiently with the cases that come to this Commission that come from the different journalists' organizations.”

For Domínguez, from RSF, he agrees on the importance of this law to activate protection mechanisms. “The law is necessary for the State to activate protection mechanisms for the exercise of journalism, as part of its obligations of prevention, protection and procurement of justice.”

The situation of the press in El Salvador has also been highlighted by the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In its 2020 annual report, the Office of the Special Rapporteur noted that threats against freedom of expression “intensified” in 2020. It “notes with particular concern the constant disparagement by high-level authorities of journalists and media outlets whose editorial lines are critical of the government, which undermines and erodes the crucial role of the press in democratic societies and prevents a reasonable and pluralistic deliberation on public affairs,” the report said.

The law that could not be

The proposal for the “Special Law for the Comprehensive Protection of Journalists, Communicators and Communication and Information Workers” has come a long way to achieve approval that has not yet arrived.

Cárcamo recalls that talks around the law started in 2017. Its first version was focused on a protection system and guaranteeing the working conditions of journalists. According to her, practicing journalism in El Salvador is one of the “most precarious professions in the region. “Many journalists do not have a support system, such as social security, they do not have employment contracts and many times their salaries are “far below even the minimum wage,” she explained.

Attacks on journalists were also a concern. Since 2018, when APES began monitoring these cases, they have noticed worrying figures. To this was added that at the end of 2018, the Office of the Attorney for the Defense of Human Rights published a report that gave an account of the situation of women journalists in El Salvador. One of the most “alarming” data, according to Cárcamo, was that 100 percent of the women journalists surveyed indicated that at some point in their daily work they were victims of harassment due to their gender. "All of that led to that bill," Cárcamo said.

After work that included discussing the law with journalists from the interior of the country to achieve a solid document not only at a technical level, but also to collect the “real needs” of journalists, the proposal of 60 articles was officially presented to the Assembly in October 2018. However, it was only until 2019 when it entered the Legislation and Constitutional Points Commission where it did not see major advances in almost a year.

In mid-2020 and as a result of the pandemic, a Special Commission was created to investigate cases of harassment of journalists by the government.

“In that special commission, those of us who participated in those meetings, one of the things we insisted on was that the attacks not only came from the Executive – which although it is a trend at this time where cases of violations are also getting worse – but that the violations also came earlier, from other sectors, and that we considered, beyond creating that commission to issue a final report, that the most pertinent thing was that discussion of the bill would be resumed.”

Indeed, in November 2020, the Legislation Commission of the Assembly invited APES and other organizations that are part of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists to explain the importance of a protection law. At that meeting, according to Cárcamo, the Commission promised to follow up.

“That was in November. They did not follow up on it at the next commission session. December passed. January passed. February elections passed. And it is not until after the February elections that this commission takes up the discussion of the bill,” Cárcamo said.

By March, when discussions of the law began within the Commission, APES and other organizations were invited to clarify some issues. The discussions of the Commission, which met on Mondays, were stagnant on issues such as what a journalist was, how the issue of platforms would be included, the scope of the protection system, among other issues.

Finally, when the Commission was able to discuss the articles of the law and various modifications, the bill did not receive enough votes to go to the general plenary session of the Assembly.

For this reason, it will be the responsibility of the new Assembly to resume the discussion of the law. And although the scenario is more adverse, Cárcamo also highlights the lack of political will of the previous legislature that did not approve it in two years.

“It’s not that that assembly was the best, either. In other words, if there was a legitimate interest in protecting journalists when the bill was presented, they would have approved it.”

Cárcamo pointed out that despite this situation, they will continue with the public debate on the law. She also considers that journalists’ unions, civil society and international organizations can help this discussion to take place in the country.

However, she also stressed that they are aware that a law by itself does not guarantee that the law will be applied correctly, and that there are other tools to achieve some progress. Thus, for example, she points out the importance of opening dialogues with the Prosecutor General's Office to create a specialized unit to investigate attacks against journalists, or that the Attorney General's Office create a special unit for freedom of expression.