Attacks on the Press 1999: El Salvador

While access to information remained the primary concern for journalists in El Salvador, new legal restrictions provoked loud protests. And a series of violent threats against journalists suggested continuing intolerance for a press that has grown more assertive in recent years. (See the special report on postwar journalism in El Salvador and Guatemala.)

President Francisco Flores assumed office on June 1 and immediately took the presidential tradition of disdain for the press to a new level. He appointed a presidential spokesman for the first time, but former television host Ricardo Rivas was said to be nearly as inaccessible as the president himself.

After he had been in office for 100 days, polls indicated not only that Flores was losing his popular support under the strain of a persistent economic crisis and a rising crime rate but also that the population had no idea what he was up to. In response, Flores dismissed Rivas and announced he would handle press relations himself. But Flores’ relations with the press continue to be strained. Journalists were particularly unhappy about the president’s habit of holding “off the record” meetings before each press conference to find out what questions journalists intended to ask during the press conference itself.

The government blames many of El Salvador’s problems on local journalists, who tend to be scolded for reporting critical news. Foreign Minister María de Avila, for instance, blamed negative press coverage for the lower-than-expected amount of international aid sent in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, which devastated Central America in October 1998.

Editors of the country’s two biggest dailies, La Prensa Gráfica and El Diario de Hoy, ran afoul of the law by publishing the names of minors who had been charged with criminal offenses. Many Salvadoran lawyers and journalists argue that for reasons of public safety, the press should sometimes be allowed to publish the names and photographs of violent youth offenders. At year’s end, the Legislative Assembly was studying the possibility of legalizing such exceptions.

Meanwhile, the Asociación de Periodistas de El Salvador (APES), a local press organization, petitioned the Legislative Assembly to reform several laws that restrict press freedom. APES asked that Article 272 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which allows judges to bar journalists from covering trials, be modified to prevent it from being applied arbitrarily. APES is also lobbying for a new law that would allow journalists to protect their sources. Currently, journalists are regularly barred from trials and are forced to reveal sources under threat of imprisonment.

Since the end of El Salvador’s civil war in 1992, violence against journalists has become increasingly rare. In 1999, journalists reported only a handful of threats. But dangers persist, particularly for journalists who cover drug trafficking and organized crime. Reporting on these topics is limited, and published articles never carry a byline.

In September, when the daily El Diario de Hoy ran a story in its magazine Vértice, linking some of San Salvador’s casinos with the drug trade, one investor, retired Honduran Col. Leónidas Torres, sued editors Enrique Altamirano and Lafitte Fernández for defamation, which is punishable in El Salvador by up to four years in prison. A local court was expected to hear the case in the first half of 2000.