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El Salvador NGOs File Suit Against Gag Order on Gang Statements

Men captured for alleged gang links are escorted by the National Civil Police during the state of emergency declared by the government in San Salvador on March 31, 2022.

El Salvadoran NGOs asked the judiciary on Tuesday to declare unconstitutional a new measure that journalists warn could criminalize certain forms of media reporting on gangs.

The reform to the penal code, passed on April 6, approves prison sentences of up to 15 years for reproducing and transmitting information from gangs "that could generate anxiety and panic among the general population".

It is part of El Salvador President Nayib Bukele's crackdown on gangs and violent crime.

"The reforms are imposing an absolute limitation of rights, particularly on journalism. This means that journalists can be prosecuted for reporting," Ruth Elenora Lopez, a representative for the human rights organization Cristosal, told a press conference.

Cristosal and the Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES) filed the suit with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court.

The reform "imposes a gag on the right that a journalist or media has to inform the public, it is an attack on freedom of information," said APES president Cesar Castro.

Neither organization has much confidence that the lawsuit will go forward, since the Constitutional Chamber is allied with Bukele's government.

Castro said their suit only served to "exhaust the mechanisms of justice" in El Salvador before they take their case to the international level.

El Salvador declared a state of emergency in late March following a weekend of violence that included at least 87 reported killings, which the government attributed to the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs.

Since then, police and the military have rounded up thousands of suspected gang members using emergency powers that allow them to do so without warrants.

According to the president, who is highly popular, more than 13,500 gang members have been arrested in the past 24 days.

As the NGOs filed their suit, El Salvador's Congress approved a law Tuesday to speed up construction of new prisons, as incarcerated populations swell with gang-related arrests.

The wave of detentions is unprecedented in a country that has suffered decades of violent crime driven by the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs.

These gangs include around 70,000 members, some 26,000 of whom are currently in jail, according to authorities.