'We left El Salvador so we could continue in El Salvador': How El Faro decided to move its management to Costa Rica

After 25 years, El Salvador's most acclaimed newspaper has for the past month no longer been legally based in the country. Under legal harassment, with dozens of its journalists electronically spied on by the government, without any hope in the courts to defend itself against abuses, El Faro announced that it had moved its administrative and legal offices to Costa Rica on April 1. 

If the publication's legal and bureaucratic structure will now be in another country, this does not mean, however, that the increasingly authoritarian government of Nayib Bukele has managed to rid itself of its diligent watchdog. The journalists of this multi-award winning news outlet, which specializes in investigative reporting on corruption and the abuse of power, are still in the country, and its editorial approach remains the same.

"It is a paradox. We left El Salvador so we could continue in El Salvador," Carlos Dada, co-founder and director of the news outlet, told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). “We have taken out the structure of the newspaper to be able to continue doing journalism in El Salvador as long as we can.  As long as they don't start criminalizing journalists as we have seen in Guatemala and of course in Nicaragua. This is going to happen in El Salvador as well."

The move makes evident the fear experienced by government watchdogs and the defenders of the rule of law and human rights in El Salvador. March 27 marked the one-year anniversary of the country's permanent state of emergency, imposed in the name of fighting its powerful drug gangs. Reports of abuse of power by the government abound, from arbitrary detentions to coordinated smear campaigns and harassment against opponents and independent voices. 

​​Dada, who spoke to LJR by video call from the Netherlands, where he was traveling after winning the World Press Freedom Hero award in 2022, does not hold out much political hope for the near future. He sees authoritarianism in his country growing more powerful and still far from reaching its peak. Moreover, he attributes authoritarian populism not only to what is happening inside El Salvador, but also to a regional and global situation.  

Faced with this scenario, the journalist has a simple answer as to why insist on the craft of informing in the face of so many adversities. 

“El Faro has a very collective project, and we’ve come up with several answers to this question," Dada told LJR. "I really like the one from editor-in-chief Oscar Martinez. He says that what we do helps make life more difficult for the corrupt, the thieves and the murderers."

Persecution on many fronts

Even before taking office in June 2019, Bukele gave signs that he considers journalism to be a nuisance, with hostile messages like "there are no independent news outlets in El Salvador." El Faro, meanwhile, continued to do its job, delivering bombastic scoops, such as their story published on Sept. 3, 2020, that the government was negotiating with gangs to reduce homicides in exchange for benefits in and out of prisons.

This news was especially uncomfortable for the president. Three weeks after its publication, Bukele used the national radio and television network to report that El Faro was the subject of an investigation for alleged "tax evasion and money laundering." The investigation — condemned by independent actors such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH), which considered that the journalists of El Faro were "in a serious and urgent situation" — demanded that El Faro give them non-tax information, such as the personal data of all its subscribers. 

"Some journalists say that this government attacks the press. We are committed to freedom of expression, but some publish a pack of lies and what we do is to rebuke them. This is not a violation of freedom," Bukele also said during the broadcast.

The harassment was just beginning. In April 2021, with the supposed purpose of avoiding generating "anxiety and panic," Congress passed a "gag law" providing up to 15 years for those who "reproduce messages presumably originating or originating from gangs." 

In January 2022, it was learned that the telephone sets of at least 22 El Faro employees, from journalists to members of the management board and administrative staff, were spied on at least between June 2020 and November 2021 using Pegasus software, which the Israeli company NSO Group sells only to governments.

In parallel to this, Bukele and his allies have dismantled other institutions that could ensure the functioning of a system of checks and balances. In April 2021, the Congress, where Bukele's party has a supermajority capable of promoting constitutional changes, dismissed judges from El Salvador's Supreme Court, and replaced them with allies.

Taken together, this scenario led the El Faro team to decide that their legal permanence in El Salvador was untenable.

“There was no single cause. [It was due to] judicial harassment, espionage. Above all, and this is the main reason, our realization that in El Salvador there is no longer access to justice, and therefore, if the government accuses us of whatever it wants, we have no way to defend ourselves," Dada told LJR. "Because, even proving that the accusation is not true, he has control of the Attorney General's Office, of the system of judges, of the Ministry of Finance, of the police. He controls the entire judicial apparatus, so we no longer have the right to legitimate defense."

Exposure of Individuals

Announced last April 13, the decision to move their structure to San José, Costa Rica, began, according to Dada, to be thought about a year and a half ago, when the team realized that the Salvadoran government could, if it wanted to, "embargo the paper, freeze our accounts, take our paper and paralyze us." Costa Rica, which has the most solid democracy in Central America (but faces its own authoritarian tensions against the press), was considered the most convenient option.

The process of change was not without difficulties. Once a private Salvadoran company, El Faro is now run by a Costa Rican non-profit organization called Fundación Periódica. One of the challenges, Dada said, was to work out an administrative structure in two different countries.

Most of El Faro's journalists are still in El Salvador, and they continue to sign their own stories. For now, most of the government's legal actions have been directed against the newspaper's as an institution, but individuals are also exposed. The above mentioned Gag Law, for example, leaves room for journalists to be arrested.

For now, the newspaper's strategy has been to take precautions and adopt special security measures. "There are journalists who have been out of the country for some time, [and then] they come back. As long as we can, we will continue in El Salvador," Dada said. "It's not that journalists are not at risk, but as long as they don't take another step, which they could take at any moment, our intention is for the newsroom to continue to be in San Salvador."

In addition to judicial harassment, journalists are also exposed to an intense campaign of misinformation and the promotion of resentment. In November last year, a Reuters investigation revealed that the Bukele government funds a troll and bot machine to discredit and intimidate journalists.

It's not just El Faro journalists who are at risk. Other independent news outlets, such as Factum and El Gato Encerrado magazines, continue to work in the country. Dada says that the El Faro team, as the most internationally visible publication, feels a responsibility towards these colleagues.

"We are in constant communication with other media. There are journalists from other media who have the same threats against their heads as us," Dada said. "Against us, the harassment has been more obsessive. That is to say, silencing us would be a major lesson for all the other news outlets that do not have our, let's say, reach or our reputation."

OAS' omission

Dada had no kind words to refer to the current management of the Organization of American States (OAS), which is responsible for safeguarding democracy in the region. In 2020, during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the organization's secretary general, Luis Almagro, labeled criticism of Bukele as "recurrent hysterical voices" and said that "we should not invent dictatorships where they do not exist."

Since then, there has been friction between the two sides, such as El Salvador's withdrawal from an OAS anti-corruption commission, and Almagro even said the country could go the way of "Venezuela, Cuba, [and] Nicaragua." 

Even with the recent criticism, Dada thinks that Almagro is lax. “The Organization of American States has proven once again that it’s a disaster. During the first years, Secretary General Almagro protected Bukele, saying those who accused him of authoritarianism were exaggerating."

The co-founder of El Faro is pleased with the work of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, but would like to see more work from the special rapporteur for freedom of expression, Pedro Vaca Villarreal.

"He’s been too quiet for my taste, too cautious. He has preferred to remain silent in the face of shocking situations," Dada said. "I don't think he is a person of bad faith. I simply believe that he is playing a role as if we were living ordinary moments, in a moment that is really extraordinary. We need a rapporteurship with much more strength and with much more commitment to the protection of fundamental values such as freedom of expression and of the press in Central America."

Regional backlash

For 15 years, El Faro has claimed to have a "Central American and universal mission," and the newspaper's staff hopes the move is a step in that direction. The open letter announcing the transition recalls situations in other Central American countries, showing that attacks against the press are a trend.

In Guatemala, journalists face prosecution, and the president of ElPeriódico, José Rubén Zamora, has been in jail for nine months. Honduras ranks last in the region in the press freedom index. In December, President Xiomara Castro dismantled the journalist protection mechanism and also declared a state of exception.

Nicaragua, on the other hand, has already become an undisputed dictatorship. Daniel Ortega's regime has closed down all critical media and imprisoned, deported, and made journalists stateless

Bukele has one difference from the leaders of the other countries — the population enthusiastically supports him. His self-proclaimed "war on gangs," which included the inauguration of a mega detention center, has made his popularity rating hover around 90%.

Why report?

This creates an additional challenge for Dada and his Salvadoran colleagues: Why insist on informing, if most people prefer not to hear the uncomfortable truths you offer?

"For us it is very complicated. Maybe I should start by telling you that we’ve never been in a popularity contest with any president, because we would lose them all,” Dada said. “Presidents get to those positions by popular election, because the majority of the people vote for them. Our role will always be to be unpopular."

Next, the journalist says that, in the face of so many adversities, "that certainly makes you wonder what is the point of paying the cost of doing journalism, which is increasingly higher. When our communities apparently are not interested in what we are reporting, I think that has forced us to ask ourselves fundamental questions in this profession."

Dada mentions the explanation of its editor-in-chief, Oscar Martínez, "to make life more difficult for the corrupt, the thieves, and the murderers.” But that's not all. El Faro's journalism, he adds, will also play a role in the future, the day Bukele is gone, when someone wants to understand how the country, which lived through a bloody civil war between 1980 and 1992 until it became democratic, fell into the clutches of authoritarianism.

"History leaves behind lessons. One of them is that every period ends, and when the whole period ends and we look back to try to understand what happened to us during this period, our materials may be important to find answers to that,” Dada said. "I believe that we are bearing witness to the loss of our democracy, the loss of our rule of law and the consolidation of a regime, which is now authoritarian and will soon be heading towards a dictatorship."