Nayib Bukele's war on quality investigative journalism


In the past decade, investigative journalists have uncovered important information for the Salvadoran people about the misdeeds of those in power.  Their reports disclosed the role of the government of El Salvador in negotiating a 2012 gang truce under president Mauricio Funes, revealed payoffs from both ARENA and the FMLN to the gangs for election support in the 2014 presidential election, reported on corruption in the office of the attorney general, uncovered the existence of extra-judicial execution squads within the security forces under president Salvador Sanchez Ceren, and more.     

That valuable work at sites like El FaroRevista FactumGato Encerrado and FocosTV has continued under the current administration of president Nayib Bukele.  Journalists at traditional newspapers including El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Gráfica have also been shedding light on dealings of government officials.   For instance, RevistaFactum revealed instances of nepotism in the hiring of government officials.  El Faro reported on early government spending from a secret account previously denounced by Bukele.  RevistaFactum asked who was funding trips by the head of the prison system to Mexico.  The various news outlets have also disclosed numerous instances of self-dealing by government officials in the purchase of COVID-relief provisions and PPE to deal with the pandemic.      

To challenge any suggestion of wrongdoing in his administration, even before he assumed his office, president Nayib Bukele has spoken with derision about investigative journalism in the country.  From the megaphone of his Twitter account, Bukele has called journalists mercenaries bought by financial interests, the favorite "digital pamphlets" of the Legislative Assembly, throwing their reputations in the trash, to select just a tiny sample.  His words are picked up by his cabinet ministers and his enormous online following who then multiply the effect and repeat the smears in comments and retweets of any article approaching a criticism of Bukele or his government.

Bukele recently stepped up his attacks even more after El Faro published an article titled Bukele Has Been Negotiating with MS-13 for a Reduction in Homicides and Electoral Support.   The El Faro investigation relied on leaked prison system documents and interviews with sources in the administration and gang members.   It described a series of meetings between government officials and top gang leaders in the prison which allegedly has led to a reduction in homicides and potential gang influence in the 2021 elections. 

As Bloomberg reported:

The president denies the reports and last month accused the newspaper of laundering money. El Faro director Jose Luis Sanz dismisses the accusation and audit as an attempt to silence the free press.

“Nayib Bukele wants to consolidate a political project and leave no space for pluralism, much less free speech and public questioning from independent newspapers,” Sanz said in an interview. “Freedom of expression in El Salvador is in critical condition.”

Warnings about erosion of press freedom

Bukele's ever more strident attacks on the press, coupled with his willingness to employ tools of the state such as financial audits and suggestions of the existence of criminal investigations, have sounded alarm bells inside and outside El Salvador.

The Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES) denounced Bukele's actions in a statement:

The intention to stigmatize those media and journalists who do journalism - and who have thus revealed worrying cases of corruption, nepotism and arbitrariness in the current administration - is evident, and seeks to undermine the credibility of the non-aligned press to implant the official narrative as the only legitimate voice. This attitude, which criminalizes plurality of thought, not only undermines one of the constitutional duties of the presidency - seeking social harmony - but also strengthens an increasingly authoritarian path 

During the first year of the Bukele administration which ended June 1, 2020, APES had tallied 61 assaults on press freedom by the government.  The abuse included attacks on APES itself.  That total has grown steadily since then. 

Advocates for journalists around the world have spoken up with concern.  In an article titled International community stands in solidarity with El Faro as Salvadoran government attacks on independent press escalate, the LatAm Journalism Review on October 2 describes the mounting antagonism of the Bukele government towards the independent press in the country. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists made its position known:

“President Bukele appears committed to continuing his anti-press rhetoric and spreading rumors in a campaign to damage El Salvador’s independent media,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “President Bukele and the government agencies in his administration should refrain from harassing journalists and must immediately clarify if there is an investigation into El Faro, and, if so, drop it immediately.”

Similarly, the jury of the prestigious Maria Moors Cabot Awards for inter-American journalism at Columbia Journalism School issued a statement:  

The Cabot Jury is shocked and appalled to see the growing assault President Bukele and his administration are carrying out against freedom of the press and the rule of law in El Salvador.

The Inter-American Press Association wrote on its website:

The president of IAPA, Christopher Barnes and the president of the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Roberto Rock, condemned the indirect censorship exercised by the "Executive Branch through fiscal tactics, with the intention of silencing El Faro and other independent media".

Meanwhile hundreds of writers and journalists wrote a letter to the Organization of American States:

We consider it extremely serious that the President uses a national channel to announce an investigation against a press outlet, since the audits have not yet been completed and neither the Ministry of Finance nor the Prosecutor's Office have notified the newspaper of any irregularity in their accounting or the existence of an investigation for these crimes.

All the events described here constitute an attack on freedom of the press and can only be aimed at delegitimizing and silencing the journalistic work of El Faro, which has been particularly uncomfortable for the Salvadoran government due to its investigations into corruption and the Bukele administration's negotiations with illegal groups. 

The attacks violate the institutional guarantees of a democratic state. The criminalization and stigmatization of the media and journalists seriously deteriorates the rule of law. 

In just one year in power, Nayib Bukele has shown an authoritarian tendency that is expressed in his takeover of Congress with the military last February, his constant contempt for judicial sentences, his intolerance of any critical voice and his systematic attack on independent journalism that do media like El Faro.  

They were joined by seven prominent international human rights organizations who together signed a letter which declared:

Given these facts, the signatory organizations express our deepest concern about the ongoing course of stigmatization and criminalization, against an independent media that performs a necessary function in any democracy. We defend the role that journalists play as human rights defenders, as their contribution is key the functioning of democracy.

Bukele's Response

Bukele's response to this criticism has deliberately echoed his ally in Washington, Donald Trump.  His attacks came to a crescendo in a nationally broadcast press conference on September 24 where he spent much of his time belittling investigations of his government and journalists.   


 

Bukele repeatedly calls articles which are critical of him "Fake News."   When it is asserted that he is endangering freedom of the press in the country, he argues that no one is exercising censorship and that news outlets continue to publish negative articles about him without being shut down.  

Time and again Bukele asserts that the independent news outlets are only at the service of their financiers.  Bukele's ad hominem attacks regularly include pointing out that Jorge Siman, one cousin in the prominent Siman family, was a founder of El Faro, while another cousin Javier Siman, is a critic of Bukele from within ARENA and the business community.  In Bukele's telling, the Siman family as a whole represents big business interests which put profits over the well-being of the people and El Faro is one of its tools.  Bukele also made a similar attack on RevistaFactum, claiming it is controlled by Fito Salume, another prominent business figure (which Factum denies).  Bukele also suggests that there is something illicit in the fact that Revista Factum, El Faro, and Gato Encerrado have all received funding from philanthropist George Soros through the Open Society Foundation which provides grants to strengthen democracy, freedom of expression and accountable government.          

Bukele asserts without proof that Hector Silva Avalos, one of the founders of RevistaFactum, received illegal cash payments from Mauricio Funes, and claims there is an open investigation against Silva Avalos.   Bukele used that September 24 broadcast to assert that El Faro was being investigated for money laundering, and his Minister of the Treasury has used an audit of El Faro to conduct a harassing inquiry into its donors, supporters and editorial processes. 

The United States stands on the sidelines

Some members of the US Congress are also reacting with concern.  Democratic senators and members of the House of Representatives, led by Eliot Engel, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Bukele stating:  

We are alarmed by recent attacks against El Faro, one of Central America’s top independent, investigative outlets. El Faro’s first-rate journalism is well-respected not only in El Salvador but also throughout the international community…While disagreements between government officials and the media are bound to occur in any democracy, we believe that governments must always ensure full respect for press freedom.

Six Republican Congressmen wrote to Bukele to express concern over the  "slow but sure departure from the rule of law and norms of democracy."   When asked, Bukele dismissed the letters from Washington as coming from a small group out of 535 members of Congress who had historic links to ARENA and the FMLN.


Gabriel Labrador of El Faro questions Bukele at
Sept. 24 press conference about letter from US Congressmen

For its part, the US State Department has limited itself to commenting only that journalists do important work and independence of the press must be respected.   Meanwhile the US Ambassador to El Salvador, Ronald Johnson, has frequently been a willing participant in Bukele's public relations machine, even recently tweeting out favorable public opinion polls and regularly referring to his close friendship with the Salvadoran president.

As an opinion piece on the Univision News site stated:

Bukele is a key ally of President Donald Trump, who he has called “ very nice and cool.” Last year, Bukele reached an agreement with the Trump administration that will allow the U.S. to send asylum seekers from other countries to El Salvador, one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Bukele has also publicly acknowledged taking the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine touted by Trump to combat coronavirus, despite warnings about its safety.

From Columbia Journalism Review,  In El Salvador, a beacon of truth under threat:

In normal times, serious US officials would recognize what’s at stake and stand up to defend El Faro, along with the other Salvadoran media outlets that have come under attack. There is, of course, no chance of that happening as long as Trump remains in power.
Ronald Johnson and Nayib Bukele on phone call
with Donald Trump earlier this year

Meanwhile, national elections approach in El Salvador

 In an editorial titled Bukele is a Threat to Journalism, the El Faro team wrote:

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 political ends of such campaigns are obvious.  El Salvador will soon have national elections for deputies to its Legislative assembly at the end of February.  The elections offer the possibility for Bukele to fully consolidate his power and to relegate the old guard parties ARENA and the FMLN to irrelevance.    For Bukele, any suggestions of flaws in his administration must be ruthlessly stamped out as just the complaints of "the 3%" or "los corruptos de siempre."

Ironically, some of Bukele's fiercest attacks against ARENA and FMLN politicians come from revelations in reporting done by the independent journalists he now derides.   The politician who rode into office on a platform of combating corruption, now rejects the work of journalistic watchdogs who would uncover that corruption.   

So far, independent journalists in El Salvador continue their work in spite of Bukele's actions.       


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