In his antidemocratic obsession to destroy voices that are critical of him or don’t render him homage, President Nayib Bukele wields all available tools of the state as a machine of persecution. The government of El Salvador is doing whatever it can to quiet anyone who thinks differently or critically examines it.
Since June of 2019 El Faro has been a special target for these attacks. The president has relied on intelligence agents, propaganda experts, ministers, other public officials, and various state institutions in an effort not only to delegitimize our work, but to impede it. Not only has he systematically denied us access to public information and stigmatized and defamed our journalists, readers, and financial backers; he has pursued baseless and outlandish administrative cases against us in an attempt to conjure up criminal accusations or, at least, slanderous propaganda to undercut our reputation.
For nearly the last two years, El Faro has publicly denounced these attacks and has pursued legal avenues, both domestic and international, to defend ourselves. Bodies such as the Constitutional Court, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Gabo Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalists have condemned these attacks.
Today, the government has taken it a step further.
At the end of last week, we were notified of the preliminary conclusions of an audit that the Treasury Ministry has been conducting of El Faro’s finances over the past year. The Treasury claims to have found, in our 2017 accounting records, an intentional tax evasion of $33,700 dollars. The accusation is completely baseless, as El Faro will prove on paper and, if necessary, in court. But we also reject the claim here, publicly, in order to maintain transparency with our readers and to stand tall before the executive’s propaganda machine.
The Bukele administration is accusing us, in short, of not paying taxes that we in fact paid — the proof of which the very Treasury Ministry has had in their hands for months — or of not paying taxes on income that never existed and the Treasury has fabricated. This absurdity has only one explanation: the mission of the Treasury’s auditors investigating us since July 2020 is not to protect the interests of the state or pursue tax evaders, but to comply with attack orders issued from the president’s office.
The Treasury’s arguments can only be explained by the auditors’ deliberate decision to manipulate or omit information that they have in their possession. After ten months of investigation they are accusing us of evading paying taxes in 2017 on income received in 2017 but allocated and therefore registered in 2018, and which were correctly declared and paid in 2018, as the law requires. All of our tax records from 2018, for months now, have been at the auditors’ disposal.
For two decades, El Faro has declared its accounting operations and taxes on time and in the same fashion, with the endorsement not only of its accountant and yearly external auditors, but also of public administrators.
On the other hand, and on even weaker grounds, the Treasury is also accusing us of not having declared supposed income from our crowdfunding program, Excavación Ciudadana (“Citizen Support”). In a premeditated act lacking even a single document to show that the income existed, Treasury has concluded that each and every contribution from our subscribers, even if they were only one time payments, should be calculated on a monthly basis, thus, multiplied in quantity. That is, if one of our readers contributed $10 to El Faro in January of 2017, the auditors have concluded — again, baselessly — that the individual contributed that quantity on a monthly basis and, therefore, would have generated an income of $120 for El Faro that year. The Treasury, which has in its possession all the documents detailing these transactions and contributions from our subscribers, is not claiming we didn’t pay taxes on them — because we obviously did — but that we didn’t pay taxes on money that doesn’t exist.
As absurd as this situation may seem, it is in fact extremely dangerous. But it’s also no surprise. President Bukele’s insistence on casting doubt on our tax paying on multiple national broadcasts and through the comments of other officials led us to believe auditing inconsistencies of this kind might be coming. Unfortunately, this government’s attitude only forecasts similar conclusions for the other three audits that Treasury is still conducting of El Faro, through which auditors not only tried to illegally obtain the list of names of our subscribers and meeting minutes from the Executive Board, but also demanded to know the monetary value of the symbolic trinkets El Faro has received over the years as awards in international journalism.
It must be reiterated that the auditors are acting on top-down orders to mount a case confirming the president’s a priori verdict that he announced as the audits of El Faro were just beginning. On September 24, in the middle of a national broadcast convened to discuss the pandemic, the president told the country that El Faro was under investigation for serious accusations of money laundering. Those statements constituted a crime, or several, which the Attorney General’s Office never investigated. The Treasury Minister and the ministry’s auditors have since scrambled to find nonexistent substantiation of the president’s lie. That was the inevitable result, given the inverted order of events: first, the executive dictated the desired findings, creating a narrative against El Faro and the rest of the independent press; the investigation followed.
El Faro has followed the law. We have submitted to auditors all the accounting information that they have requested, including documentation down to the penny of all of our income, expenses, and tax payments from each past audit. We only refused, in accordance with the law, to submit to the Treasury information unrelated to taxes, such as the personal information of our subscribers and the Executive Board meeting minutes, information which clearly was beyond the scope of a tax audit. El Faro has documented and journalistically denounced how the current administration has systematically leveraged the Treasury Ministry as a weapon of selective persecution of those it considers its adversaries.
That’s why, in defense of freedom of expression amid this attempt at indirect censorship, we raised our concerns before the Supreme Court of Justice, of which the Constitutional Chamber found sufficient evidence to issue an injunction and protective measures on our behalf, impeding the Treasury from continuing to request information unrelated to taxes.
We have not evaded taxes, nor withheld tax-related information from authorities. Let us be clear: never.
This government’s attacks against El Faro include smear campaigns, stalking, illegal wiretaps, threats, and constant online harassment. In an administration with the same symptoms of corruption as its predecessors — except more opaque — good journalism is a nuisance because it can look into and denounce abuses of power, the weakening of democracy, and the scandalous acts of government corruption committed with the consent and protection of the president, who is allergic to accountability and loathe to allow not only journalism, but also government monitors such as judges and prosecutors, to access public information.
Nayib Bukele is seeking to silence us. Given that all his systems of surveillance, networks of defamation, of hiding information, of slander and threats, haven’t been enough to silence us, he is now resorting to bringing cases against us.
Few things reflect the anti-democratic, authoritarian, abusive, and intolerant character of a government as clearly as ordering public officials and institutions of the state to destroy, in any way, people or institutions that don’t profess unconditional support. In taking these actions, Bukele and his officials are corrupting the state. That is the reality we are facing today.
We are not the first to suffer attacks from this administration. But, as opposed to others, who have opted to concede to pressure from Bukele without calling it out or denouncing it, we are going to defend ourselves and vindicate our work, which is journalism, and we will conduct it faithfully and vigorously no matter how long this government’s onslaught against us lasts. And we will do so accompanied by our readers, our allies, and our supporters in El Salvador and abroad, in defense of the most basic principles of democracy.