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'We Are Not Going to Censor Ourselves,' Say El Salvador Journalists

FILE - A newspaper saleswoman waits for customers in San Salvador, El Salvador, Feb. 10, 2020.

It took just a few days for El Salvador's new law banning messages about gangs to impact the media.

Three days after the country's congress passed the measure, a member of the ruling party announced on Twitter that he planned to file a complaint against Gabriela Cáceres and Óscar Martínez, who work for the El Faro news magazine. The journalists had reported on the release last year of a convicted leader of the MS-13 gang, who was set free despite an ongoing case against him.

"At that moment, for me, everything was clear," said Cáceres. "This is going to limit me to do my job; they are going to find a way to silence me and to intimidate me."

Passed in early April, the new law — part of President Nayib Bukele’s effort to combat gangs after a violent weekend left 87 people dead — bars reproducing or transmitting "messages or statements … from said criminal groups that could generate anxiety and panic," a translated copy of the law says.

Those who violate it face hefty sentences of up to 15 years.

In El Salvador alone, about 70,000 people belong to either MS-13 or another gang, according to authorities. About 16,000 gang members are behind bars.

News websites, including El Faro, Revista Factum and Gato Encerrado, have reported on the gang phenomenon in Central America for years. Their coverage has included reports on negotiations between former Salvadoran governments and gangs designated as terrorists.

'We are not going to stop'

In conversations with VOA, journalists who cover gangs and public security spoke about how the new law could affect their reporting and how they plan to continue.

"We are not going to censor ourselves," said Jessica Ávalos, editor in chief and corruption investigator at Revista Factum.

"We have published an editorial in which we say that silence is not an option, that we are not going to stop investigating. But we are going to be careful that they do not use each publication as a pretext or excuse to attempt a visceral persecution against our journalists and against the media."

Ávalos said that the Law for the Prohibition of Gangs seeks only to "criminalize the journalistic profession."

"To what extent can it help the population if the media stop reporting on the gangs?" she said. "If it's known that the gangs extorted, raped, killed, this is because the media put that reality on the table, and this has always bothered the authorities."

In an interview with VOA, the vice president of El Salvador, Félix Ulloa, defended the measure and said media have nothing to fear if they do not violate it.

"(The law) seeks to combat criminal acts that are reproduced not only by the media," he said. "A general rule has been given to combat this mechanism of promotion and defense of crime."

Ulloa added, "If any international media come (to El Salvador) and do their job, you won't find any problems here. Nor is freedom of the press threatened."

Crime beat

For the past two decades, El Faro has investigated alleged connections between gangs and the government.

In 2021, the media outlet revealed that the then-Prosecutor's Office was investigating secret negotiations between the Bukele government and imprisoned members of the country's three main gangs, all of which are designated terrorist organizations.

The gangs allegedly agreed to decrease the number of killings in exchange for better prison conditions.

The revelations prompted the U.S. Treasury Department to impose sanctions on two Salvadoran government officials in December.

In response to the new law, some news outlets, including Gato Encerrado, have solicited legal advice.

"The first thing is that we are not going to stop doing journalism. We are not going to stop publishing about human rights, about victims, about the work of the authorities in the matter of public security," Ezequiel Barrera, founder of Gato Encerrado, told VOA. "Now, despite the economic limitations, we have included a lawyer in our team."

The magazine also sought alliances with other media in an attempt to lessen the likelihood of prosecution.

"There is fear that this government will fulfill one of its objectives, which is to silence critical voices, and journalists are among those voices," Barrera said.

Accusations of censorship

Outside El Salvador, media rights groups say that the Bukele government has, in effect, legalized censorship.

"Any law that seeks to control media is imposing censorship," Carlos Martinez de la Serna, program director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told VOA.

The passage of the law leaves journalists from El Salvador in a "very worrying" situation, he said, but he believes journalists "will not remain silent."

Similar laws have been seen elsewhere in the region, including Nicaragua, said Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

But, she added, the Salvadoran law appears to be "part of a pattern of behavior not only of President Bukele but of all his control of power and of the government that has come to attack the human rights defenders and journalists."

El Salvador is ranked 112 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders 2022 press freedom index, with 1 being the most free. The media watchdog cited the president's attacks on media critical of his government.

This story originated in VOA's Latin America division.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated Jessica Ávalos' title. VOA regrets the error.