The President of El Salvador prevented two journalists from El Faro and another from Revista Factum from attending a press conference on Friday, September 6th. At first, Secretary of Communications Sofia Medina told El Faro that no such order had ever been issued. "I believe it was a misunderstanding," she said. Five hours later, her office issued a statement saying that the decision to restrict access to these two media outlets was due to alleged misconduct by their journalists in previous conferences. According to the Secretariat, the order will remain in place "until there is a serious commitment by the restricted media outlets today to respect the work of other journalists and the institution.”
The invitation, open to all media, was issued in the morning to cover an announcement related to a commission that the government seeks to promote, with support from the Organization of American States (OAS), to combat corruption in the country. The conference was scheduled for 3:00 p.m., but journalists had to be there an hour earlier. Upon arrival, all journalists were taken to a room adjacent to the outside parking lot of the Presidential House, awaiting authorization to enter the facilities.
At 2:30 p.m., delegates from the Press Secretariat notified El Faro journalist Gabriel Labrador (pictured) that journalists from El Faro and from Revista Factum were being denied access to the conference. The delegates explained that these were instructions from President Nayib Bukele's security team and that the order came from Press Secretary Ernesto Sanabria. El Faro repeatedly called Sanabria and Communications Secretary Sofia Medina, but they did not answer their telephones. They were also messaged via WhatsApp asking for an explanation and access to the conference, but there was no response either.
At 3:30 p.m., employees of the Press Secretariat and the Presidential General Staff (EMP) coordinated the journalists’ entry. To gain access to the Hall of Honor where the conference would be held, journalists had to walk through a gate. First, television cameramen came in, then photojournalists and finally editors. The photojournalist from El Faro, Víctor Peña, was stopped at the gate. An EMP soldier, dressed in plain clothes, wearing a distinctive badge, explained that Peña was forbidden from entering, at the time when the rest of the communicators were advancing toward the hall where the conference would be held.
Peña, Labrador, and Revista Factum journalist Fernando Romero asked for explanations, and the EMP soldier insisted that “those in charge of the press” had the answer. César Castro, editor-in-chief of Revista Factum, confirms that Sanabria did not respond to their request to explain why they were being blocked.
When the editors began to enter, journalist Gabriel Labrador tried to enter, but was blocked by an EMP soldier. The other plainclothes soldier held in his hands the national identity cards that the three journalists had handed in at the entrance to receive a badge that, in theory, authorized entrance to the Hall of Honor. After 15 minutes of attempting to obtain explanations, the EMP soldier stated that he did not know why the journalists had not been allowed in.
At 4:08 p.m., as the event moved into its final stretch, Secretary Medina messaged El Faro that "at no time has such an order been issued. I believe it was a misunderstanding. If they are still here, I will give instructions right now that they can enter with no problem." The offer, however, came too late, as the EMP did not allow access to the journalists. Medina added that “so that a misunderstanding of this extent does not happen again,” this newspaper should send a list of journalists assigned to cover the Presidential House “so that they can accredit them and let them enter without problems.”
Since the new administration took office, the Presidential House has allowed access by journalists from El Faro and Revista Factum, but it has been common, in most conferences, for the President to prevent these media outlets from participating in the round of open-microphone questions. El Faro has also failed to obtain, despite repeated requests, authorization from the Press Secretariat to interview members of the president’s cabinet.
At 5:01 p.m., Medina communicated with El Faro again and reported that he had received a report saying that in "the last conference," a reporter from El Faro "started shouting in the middle of the conference and that is not allowed in the Presidential House for reasons of security protocols and respect.
On Tuesday, August 27, 2019, the President held a press conference to announce the launch of the National Health Plan. On September 4th, in the final paragraph of the article “Bukele has already spent $2 million from the President’s secret purse,” this newspaper reported the incident: “As usual since the new administration took office, the President’s office only allowed journalists from two television stations and one government radio station to ask questions. Press delegates turned off the microphone and no more questions were allowed, but a journalist from El Faro raised his voice and asked Bukele: ‘When are you going to give explanations about the handling of the reserved expenses and about how you are going to handle the bonuses?’ The president did not answer and smiled. Then, an officer of the general staff approached the journalist and asked him to leave the room. ‘That's enough, please leave,’ he said.”
At 5:58, El Faro asked Medina to clarify whether this newspaper will be able to attend future conferences or whether this blockade should be understood as a sanction for trying to ask questions that make the administration uncomfortable. There was no response from the official before deadline.
At 9:48 p.m., the Secretariat of Communications’ official Twitter account issued a statement “in response to the claims of Revista Factum and the digital newspaper El Faro.” The nine-paragraph text contradicted the words of Secretary Sofia Medina. Five hours earlier, Medina had assured El Faro that “at no time has such an order been issued. I believe it was all a misunderstanding.” In the statement, however, her office reported that due to “misbehavior” by an El Faro journalist at the last Presidential House press conference, and a “similar incident” by a Factum journalist at another press conference, “the decision was made today that journalists from the digital newspapers already mentioned would not be allowed to enter.”
According to the Secretariat of Communications, “this measure will remain in place until there is a serious commitment by the restricted media outlets today to respect the work of other journalists and the institution.”
At 9:51 p.m., President Bukele quoted the statement on his official Twitter account: “The people from Factum and El Faro are making themselves the ‘vistims’, but this is the reality,” he wrote.
On Saturday morning, March 7th, Edison Lanza, IACHR Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, commented on the blockade against journalists from El Faro and Factum: “The day the President of El Salvador @nayibbukele presents commission to investigate corruption with @OAS_official Presidential House impedes access to @_ElFaro_, one of the main investigative news sites. Governments should be neutral vis-à-vis the media’s editorial line,” he wrote from his official Twitter account.
"A journalist from @RevistaFactum was also prevented from entering. And reports say that no questions are being taken," he added in another tweet, citing this article from El Faro.
*Editor's note: The original version of this article was edited on Saturday morning, September 7th. The last five paragraphs were added, containing information on the position of the Presidency and the IACHR's Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression.
FI name: September 2019