Salvadoran government reinforces limits on freedom of expression and the press during COVID-19 pandemic

Since the Salvadoran government imposed mandatory home quarantine on March 21 due to the new coronavirus pandemic, a number of executive restrictions have affected access to information and freedom of expression.

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

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

“Normally this was already a very opaque government; it is becoming more so during the response to the epidemic,” José Luis Sanz, director of the Salvadoran investigative journalism site El Faro, told the Knight Center.

Sanz pointed out that it is mainly happening regarding the criminalization and stigmatization of journalistic work and with the blocking of information.

“Since the quarantine began, El Faro has continued to receive the type of pressure or accusations from the government setting, which have been common. Above all, coming from the press secretary or other people close to President [Nayib] Bukele, who point at us and accuse us of having a hidden agenda, or of being part of a supposed axis of attack on the government,” Sanz said.

There was a lot of improvisation at the beginning of the pandemic by the government, Luis Laínez, editorial manager for the Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Gráfica, told the Knight Center. "There was, for example, a guarantee for the movement of journalists, but it stayed that way, without taking into account media workers (in our case, printing press workers and other collaborators, including newspaper vendors),” he said.

According to Laínez, a new decree now allows journalists and media workers to circulate with their press pass.

However, the president of the Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES, for its acronym in Spanish), Angélica Cárcamo, told the Knight Center that the most recurrent cases of repression of journalists in the context of mandatory home quarantine are in the interior of the country.

"Last weekend, security elements told a journalist from a community media outlet associated with Arpas (Participatory Broadcasting Association of El Salvador), that his journalist credential was not valid because they are from media that for them are critical of the current government,” Cárcamo said.

In the context of COVID-19, "as APES we consider that there are no guarantees to freedom of expression, on the contrary, there is an increase in violations of the right to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and the right of access to information,” Cárcamo said.

"We have also seen an increase in cases of digital harassment and threats against journalists, mostly women, by false Twitter accounts," she said.

As Cárcamo said, according to data registered by APES’ monitoring center for attention to journalists, from March 21 to April 21, there have been 30 violations against journalists in the country, confirming a greater abuse of power by the National Civil Police (PNC) and by elements of the Armed Forces (FAES) against the press.

The Ombudsman for the Defense of Human Rights (PDDH) recently published that since the mandatory home quarantine began on March 21, until April 20, it has registered 581 cases of human rights violations at the national level, 100 of them are violations of the right of access to information.

In a statement dated April 17, the Journalist Protection Board of El Salvador denounced limited access to official information for journalists at government press conferences since a state of emergency was declared due to the new coronavirus epidemic. It also regretted the closure of the WhatsApp group for journalists that existed with the Press of the Presidency of the Republic and National Security, which "although with deficiencies, attended to needs and consultations," the statement said.

The Board is made up of the PDDH, APES, Collective of Women Journalists, Foundation for Studies for the Application of Law (Fespad), Central American University José Simeón Cañas (UCA), Arpas, and Association of Independent Journalists from El Salvador (Aspies).

According to the Board document, the operations of the offices for access to public information have also been suspended.

"This country, El Salvador, taking advantage of the pandemic, has suspended the possibility of citizens to request public information through the offices of access to public information, and that is very serious," César Fagoaga, editor-in-chief of the Salvadoran investigative journalism site Revista Factum, told the Knight Center.

"It is very serious because the government's operation cannot deny public information, the government of El Salvador is deliberately doing so. We are very concerned about what is happening, I think outside organizations have also begun to see it," he stressed.

Human Rights Watch director for the Americas, José Miguel Vivanco, recently said via Twitter that the measures imposed by Bukele to confront the COVID-19 epidemic in El Salvador are "draconian rules."

 Photo: Salvador Meléndez/Archivo FACTUM. (Courtesy.)

Photo: Salvador Meléndez/Archivo FACTUM. (Courtesy.)

Cárcamo pointed out that Salvadorans are facing the fight of two pandemics, "the first is for COVID-19, and the second pandemic is that of a figure who does not believe in democracy and threatens to establish a dictatorship in the country." “He [the president] already demonstrated this on February 9, when he broke into the Legislative Assembly with the military. He did it on April 15 when he said that he would not abide by the judgments of the Constitutional Chamber, which are not against the measures against COVID-19, but rather that request that human rights be respected,” she stressed.

The aforementioned judgments of the Constitutional Chamber, through Hábeas Corpus 148 of 2020, approved a law to regulate arbitrary detentions, Fagoaga said.

On April 15, Bukele announced via Twitter that he will not abide by the resolution of the Constitutional Chamber ordering the President, the Armed Forces and the National Civil Police to protect human rights and not "deprive of liberty in the form of confinement or forced sanitary internment people who fail to comply with the house quarantine order,” El Faro published.

"But what we saw now on April 15 is something that really, for me, completely opens the door to authoritarianism, which is to ignore a sentence of the Constitutional Chamber. The Constitutional Chamber is the highest court of justice in El Salvador, the chamber’s decision cannot be appealed, every official is obliged to abide by it, and the president has said that he will not comply with it,” Fagoaga said.

There are also stigmatizing statements by Bukele against independent journalists and he has blocked some journalists from his personal Twitter account, according to Cárcamo. "The press secretary also makes stigmatizing statements and accuses the media of responding to political interests or of hiding NGOs," she added.

In the second week of April, the President's press secretary, Ernesto Sanabria, called Arpas a "media arm of the left," in addition to pointing out that the role of the press is not to be opposition, according to the broadcasting association. These statements on Twitter were made after Arpas published an article by Reporters Without Borders in which the advocacy organization asked the Bukele government for more transparency and to allow journalists to cover information about the new coronavirus.

Regarding El Faro, Sanz said that although they have not received hacking attempts on their servers, several of their journalists have detected hacking attempts on their social media accounts in recent days. “Attempts to enter their social networks from servers in Vietnam or in different countries. There is a journalist of ours who is in Mexico, who received attempts to access his accounts from El Salvador,” he added.

"What we envision is that limitations will be maintained and that, in addition, cases of abuse of force, abuse of power that are being detected with ordinary citizens by the Army or the Police, or the establishment of curfews or of military encirclements in certain municipalities, it can increasingly become an obstacle to our [journalistic] work,” Sanz said.

The current government is very peculiar in its way of communicating, "most of the time unilaterally," Laínez of La Prensa Gráfica said, "but we have not suffered intimidations from the government." However, he said that there are social media groups that attack the newspaper and that some identify with the government, but without having an organic link.

"We are facing a government that is not transparent, that misinforms, even the president himself publishes fake news from his Twitter account, there is a centralization of information from the Presidential Palace in the capital," leaving journalists from the interior without local sources, Cárcamo said.

"We are concerned that the repression of the press, the abuse of power by the public security forces increases, that the digital attacks on journalists could move to the physical plane, and that the state apparatus is used to harass the independent press, and that they even could threaten to close down some critical media or apply espionage measures to these types of independent journalists,” Cárcamo said.

She also pointed out that there have been attempts to dialogue with the government about its communication policy with the press, but that they have had no response. They have also insisted with the Attorney General's Office to install a specialized unit to investigate violations against journalists, and they have also been unsuccessful.

What worries Laínez about the quarantine restrictions is that these "are drowning the income of the media, from the largest to the smallest, due to the paralysis of the economy." "For the media, in any case, it is a very gloomy scenario and will not escape the global phenomenon of reduced operations or layoffs, due to the impossibility of paying wages due to the substantial decrease in income," he said.

* The Knight Center tried unsuccessfully to contact the Press Secretariat of the Presidency of El Salvador.