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Bukele Is a Threat to Journalism

El Faro

ElFaro.net / Publicado el 31 de July de 2020

On July 24, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele made a special television appearance in which he promised to "finally settle the debate" over his handling of the pandemic. In the hour-long edited video, Bukele characterized himself as the victim of a nation-wide boycott orchestrated by every sector of society not completely submissive to him. According to the president, big businesses, the media, political parties, universities, journalists, and human rights organizations have all conspired against him in an attempt to thwart his efforts to address the crisis and save lives.

This kind of superficial argument is nothing new. Nor is the video’s omission of key events critical to understanding the political features of 2020, such as the president’s use of the armed forces to occupy the Legislative Assembly on February 9, or his refusal to comply with the rulings of the Salvadoran Supreme Court. Or his fatal management of the “contagion containment centers,” or the thousands of arbitrary arrests committed by the police, or the military siege of the Port of La Libertad. Or the shortage of protective equipment for health care workers, which has already caused dozens of deaths. Or his veto of the legislative decrees that granted him almost every legal tool he asked for, but which, in return, required him to make transparent emergency expenditures during the pandemic. Or the dozens of irregularities in emergency purchases made by his government, as well as the allegations of corruption against members of his cabinet continuing to pile up as he stands by in complicit silence. 

What the president has presented and continues to present as the definitive explanation for El Salvador’s economic, political, and health crises, is, in reality, simple propaganda.

Since coming to power, Bukele has advanced an alternate version of reality according to which he is the sole defender of the people against what he calls “los mismos que siempre,” “the same ones as always”—a category which includes anyone who criticizes him or refuses to bow to his every wish. He has even accused legislative representatives of attempted genocide—yes, genocide—simply for refusing to approve his decrees. 

In recent months, faced with constant reports of corruption, as well as accusations of being ignorant of the principles of democracy and transgressing against the institutions of state, the president and his power group have begun consolidating all the resources at their disposal as they seek to impose their version of reality. As part of this strategy, and constituting yet another assault on the pillars of democracy, Bukele has declared journalism his enemy.

Attacks on media and journalists are on the rise in El Salvador, at a time when disinformation platforms are multiplying nationwide. Enormous sums of money are invested to disseminate official state propaganda on social media and the Internet, without anyone taking responsibility for the content, and without any evidence pointing to the funding sources.

These developments are an escalation of a process that first began as an expression of contempt for journalism and the media in general, even before June 1, 2019, but whose first formal act was the Presidential House’s censorship of journalists from El Faro and Revista Factum in September 2019, when the press secretary banned them from attending Bukele’s press conferences.

That incident set off a chain reaction: The story was reported on the front pages of El Diario de Hoy, whose director denounced the ban before the Inter American Press Association. In response, Bukele withdrew all government advertising and suspended printing contracts with the newspaper. Even then, it was clear that the president was willing to bring the full institutional power of the government to bear against voices of dissent.

Since then, the government’s information embargo against select media outlets, including El Faro, has become the norm.

Government officials deny interviews and refuse to provide basic information to any newspaper or television channel that questions the official version of events—as journalism must always do—while every morning top government ministers parade across the screens of the same three channels where most of the pro-Bukele advertising is concentrated.

Like previous governments

This is not new. Previous administrations have tried to block us or delegitimize us when we ask uncomfortable questions or investigate allegations of corruption. Bukele's script—which includes accusing journalists of harboring hidden agendas or acting on behalf of political rivals—is the same script followed by the very governments and corrupt political parties from which Bukele claims to distinguish himself.

But this president is amassing more power than his predecessors, and his attacks on independent journalism have gone much further.

Over the last year we have seen orchestrated campaigns against journalists on social media; slander and direct mockery from Bukele directed at reporters covering his press conferences; attacks on digital media web servers; monitoring, and even threats, which we have not been able to directly attribute to the president, but have connected to his smear campaigns against journalists from El Faro and other media outlets. These are campaigns and lies that his ministers and deputy ministers spread with impunity.

The Bukele government also fraudulently uses publicly funded platforms to attack news media. In early July, the newspaper La Página, which is operated by the National Property Management Council (Consejo Nacional de Administración de Bienes, or CONAB), unleashed a smear campaign against El Faro. The campaign involved social media posts with slanderous statements from both President Bukele himself and top government ministers. By way of an anonymous text published on that state-controlled news site, La Página accused a journalist from El Faro of a sex crime that never happened, and then accused us of covering it up.

Both accusations are false. The journalist alleged by pro-government media to be the victim has already made statements to the Prosecutor’s Office and, through her lawyers at the Central American University’s Institute of Human Rights (IDHUCA), has publicly denounced the accusation as false. In her statement, the journalist not only denies the story disseminated by the government, but condemns the newspapers who published the claim for never interviewing her, and the president, for manipulating her for political purposes.

Even so, the Attorney General of the Republic is currently conducting open investigations into El Faro, as well as one of its journalists, one of its lawyers, and its director. La Página, which is controlled by the government, continues to publish slander against El Faro and against the IDHUCA's lawyers involved in the case, and the President of the Republic and his cabinet continue to repeat these slanderous claims. Yet another lie they hope to turn into truth, in the service of their false narrative.

These attacks have been accompanied by others: In the last few weeks, we have seen suspicious vehicles surveilling the offices of El Faro, and last Monday, July 20, two days after the journalist's press release exposed the government’s campaign, the Ministry of Finance sent El Faro requests for our accounting and tax records starting from six years ago.

This is not the first time the Bukele administration has used government inspections and audits as a political tool to target individuals or companies. At the end of 2019, Revista Factum was the object of a sophisticated delegitimization campaign that included government health inspections of restaurants owned by businessman Adolfo Salume. Salume was ordered to close five of his businesses until he published a paid newspaper announcement admitting to having invested in Revista Factum. After publishing the statement, which fed into Bukele's conspiracy theories about the financing of Factum and other independent media organizations, Salume was strangely allowed to reopen his restaurants, whose sanitation problems were apparently no longer an issue.

Bukele also attempted to link Salume to El Faro, and has tried to do the same more recently with the president of the National Private Enterprise Association (Asociación Nacional de Empresa Privada, or ANEP), Javier Simán. El Faro’s finances are transparent and we do not nor have we ever had a relationship with these two businessmen—and Bukele knows it. But the truth is not what interests him.

Nor is it truth that Bukele seeks in auditing El Faro’s finances. On the morning of July 28, Deputy Finance Minister Alejandro Zelaya, currently under investigation for his links to a company that sold masks to the Health Ministry during the pandemic, repeated the slanderous claims published by La Página against El Faro. Later that same day, the Presidential House announced Zelaya’s appointment as Finance Minister.

El Faro will respond punctually to these requests, as we did when we were audited three times in a single year under a previous administration, but we denounce them as part of the government’s systematic attack on independent journalism.

Widespread Attacks on the Press

The Salvadoran Association of Journalists has documented 61 direct attacks on the press since Bukele took power last month, and more than 20 so far during the pandemic.

Last Tuesday, July 21, echoing a similar incident involving Revista Factum during the first months of the new government, the server of the magazine Gato Encerrado suffered a cyber attack that resulted in the loss of the last six months of the outlet’s publication data.

In early July, the home of Gato Encerrado reporter Julia Gavarrete was broken into while she was covering an event at the Presidential House. The only valuable object stolen was her computer.

This robbery is not an isolated event. On July 13, as part of an intelligence operation involving several people, a man entered the apartment of Oscar Luna, editor of Disruptiva, a magazine run by the academic Oscar Picardo. In recent weeks, Picardo’s mathematical projections of Covid-19 infections had placed him at the center of Bukele's rage. The thief entered Picardo’s home around midnight, while Luna and his family were sleeping, and removed two computers and a map of San José Villanueva, the municipality where Picardo is conducting a covid-19 infection monitoring experiment.

Several journalists from various media outlets have also denounced surveillance, harassment by the Presidential House’s press staff, and smear campaigns against them that have led to threats. Most notably, these include repeated attacks on Karen Fernández, a journalist with the program Focos on Canal 33. The attacks against Fernández were instigated by, among others, the former party leader of Arena, Walter Araujo, now a congressional candidate for Bukele's Nuevas Ideas party. The president has even launched a campaign against the Central American University (UCA) in retaliation for opinions expressed by its media outlets.

Government attacks on the press in El Salvador are so alarming that even during the height of the pandemic they have prompted observation and condemnation by several human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, the OAS Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), the Due Process of Law Foundation, and the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

The reason for the crackdown can be found in the very pages of the newspapers Bukele attacks: In spite of the government shutting off access to public information during the quarantine and refusing to provide journalists with information, public documentation, contracts, and access to public facilities, these media outlets have documented the awarding of million-dollar contracts during the emergency to companies with ties to public officials. Amid mounting evidence of misconduct, the president is lashing out at those who detect and document the corruption, not at the corrupt themselves.

In his march toward the dismantling of El Salvador’s democratic institutions, Bukele has found an obstacle in journalism, and he intends to silence it by whatever means necessary: fiscal, legal, technological, political, or through propaganda and social media. This is one more stage in the process of institutional and democratic regression pursued by this administration since coming to power.

El Faro reaffirms its decision to respond to these attacks with more and better journalism. For 22 years, we have continued to question and investigate every government in power and have maintained our commitment to democracy through the exercise of professional journalism. Without critical journalism, democracy can’t work—just like it can’t work without a critical citizenry, regardless of who’s in power.

We call on our national and international colleagues—and on organizations working to defend human rights, protect freedom of expression, and safeguard democracy—to take note of the threats against press freedom in El Salvador, and of the rapid deterioration of conditions necessary for the proper exercise of journalism.