Gag orders on unfavorable press in El Salvador
There is a lot of great reporting being done in El Salvador today under very tough circumstances. Investigative journalists at RevistaFactum, GatoEncerrado, El Faro and other sites continue to dig under the official versions of events broadcast by the Bukele government. These journalists are faced with a government which does its best to hide or obscure unfavorable information and by an army of internet trolls who attack anyone publicizing information which puts the government in a bad light, regardless of the veracity of that news. The situation is severe enough that the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights issued a measure earlier this year instructing the government of El Salvador to provide protection to journalists at El Faro. (There is no sign that the government plans to comply).
In recent days and weeks, the attempts to silence adverse publicity took a new turn as the government, and its newly-installed Attorney General, obtained court orders to censor publications embarrassing to the current administration.
The first order arose out of reporting by the news site GatoEncerrado. New Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado was installed in El Salvador on May 1 in a hasty proceeding which included the abrupt removal of his predecessor Raul Melara. GatoEncerrado then published a piece written by Karen Moreno disclosing that Delgado has a pending proceeding against him in family court for domestic violence. The reporting emphasized how little scrutiny the brand new Legislative Assembly controlled by Nayib Bukele had given to the man they were naming as the country's chief prosecutor. Shortly after, an order arrived from the court ordering GatoEncerrado to remove the article asserting that the case was "bajo reserva" or sealed to protect the victim, even though the publication had taken steps in that article not to include any information identifying the victim or the underlying facts. After initially removing the article, GatoEncerrado has subsequently restored the article to its site with certain changes.
Then on Monday, June 14, the Attorney General of El Salvador procured a court order telling RevistaFactum to pull down its extensively reported story by Bryan Avelar titled Asesino De Chalchuapa Confiesa Cómo Mataron A Trece Víctimas En El Último Año (Chalchuapa Killer Confesses How They Murdered Thirteen Victims In The Last Year). The piece is an in-depth look at the mass murders linked to an ex-police officer which have been headline news in El Salvador for weeks. Beyond extensive coverage in both the government-controlled and the local media, the Chalchuapa murders have been reported by Univision, the Associated Press, Reuters, the BBC, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and others.
So why put a gag order on the Revista Factum article when so much else has been published? The likely motive is that the article pointedly contradicts the official version that the murders happened 10 years ago and instead reports that the grisly events happened during the time Nayib Bukele has been in office. The judge also ordered that Factum not discuss the details of the case in an event scheduled later that evening focused on the Chalchuapa murders case.
Factum has now removed the original story from its website and replaced it with this image:
Factum also posted an editorial about the censorship. Factum referred to the wide coverage in the media of the case, both in El Salvador and around the world. Moreover, public officials within the Bukele government, as noted, have regularly spoken about the case. And so Bryan Avelar, as journalists in El Salvador do, did his job and investigated and published his findings. Factum indicated that it has now asked the Court to clarify what portions of the article are declared to be problematic and also asked the court to clarify why the Attorney General's office and other public officials have been left free to make public statements.
In solidarity with El Salvador and to thwart the attempted coverup, Avelar's article has subsequently been reposted by websites around the world, making it impossible for the story to be squelched.
The gag order was definitely one-sided, since police and prosecutors have been sharing information and "spin" with the public for weeks. For example, this tweet from the official PNC twitter account with the words of its director Mauricio Arriaza Chicas, that the murders in the case dated back more than a decade ago:
“El caso de Chalchuapa es un caso que lamentablemente data desde el 2009, con cadáveres de personas que fueron asesinadas hace más de una década, pusimos al hechor y sus colaboradores ante la justicia”, @Director_PNC. pic.twitter.com/CIVwPprGVJ— PNC El Salvador (@PNCSV) June 7, 2021
There was a joint press conference about the case with Attorney General Delgado, his lead homicide prosecutor, the head of the police Arriaza Chicas, and the Minister of Justice and Security Gustavo Villatoro.
And in all these public pronouncements there have been a variety of inconsistent statements calling out for journalists to dig deeper.
President Bukele himself issued a series of tweets with photos of the accused killer in custody, promising the suspect would spend at least 100 years in prison and showing a prison cell being prepared. The gag order on RevistaFactum, which speaks about due process and the rights of the accused, rings hollow when the president himself names the suspect, shares photos of him, calls him the "serial murderer of Chalchuapa," and says the government has "hard evidence" of his guilt.
Monday evening, after the gag order was issued, Revista Factum still hosted a live event on its social networks, talking in general terms with the Chalchuapa case and what it implied for how the police handle reports of disappearances and the quantity of femicides in the country. Then the discussion turned to the question of government censorship as the hosts were joined by Karen Moreno, who wrote the story in GatoEncerrado concerning the new attorney general, and Angélica Cárcamo, president of the Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES). For those interested in a deeper discussion of these cases, I recommend the recording of that live panel event.