Attacks on the Press 2000: El Salvador

IN A YEAR THAT SAW EL SALVADOR’S FORMER LEFTIST GUERRILLAS EMERGE as the country’s leading political party, conservative publishers reined in the journalists they employed.

The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) completed its transformation from a guerrilla army into a leading political party in the March 12 elections, winning a plurality in the Legislative Assembly and re-electing the FMLN candidate for mayor of San Salvador. The declining fortunes of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which had dominated politics in El Salvador since the end of the civil war in 1992, caused great concern among the country’s small economic elite, including media owners.

During the last few years of ARENA’s ascendancy, the owners of El Salvador’s leading dailies, El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Gráfica, granted unprecedented independence to a generation of young, enthusiastic reporters whose muckraking boosted circulation. But traditional politics trumped the market in 2000, and internal censorship increased significantly. In one notable case, Juan José Dalton, son of the famous leftist poet Roque Dalton, was removed from the editorial board of El Diario de Hoy during the election campaign after he published an article that criticized ARENA. Dalton then resigned from the paper.

In June, El Diario de Hoy broke an explosive story on wire-tapping, concluding that the state telephone company had tapped a large number of phone lines, including that of El Diario de Hoy‘s managing editor, Lafitte Fernández. The story also implicated a major Diario de Hoy advertiser, France Telecom, a daring move in a country where advertisers are normally off limits. The company promptly pulled its ads from the paper.

El Diario de Hoy launched its investigation after reporters at the paper learned about a phone-tapping complaint filed by Jorge Zedán, owner of a rival telecommunications company and co-owner of the television station TV DOCE. On July 8, several heavily armed men abducted Zedán-he was released after five days, but declined to comment on the motive. Investigations into both the kidnapping and the wire-tapping scandal were stalled at year’s end.

Another scandal shook the country halfway through the year, when El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Gráfica both reported that Salvadoran lawmakers were spending lavish amounts of taxpayer money on travel and meals. In a fit of pique, the executive committee of the Legislative Assembly (which has no representatives from the FMLN) restricted the public release of any information about the assembly’s administrative affairs. The decision was revoked after loud protests.

Meanwhile, proposals to enhance limited public access to government documents and to protect confidential press sources gathered dust in the assembly. The local press organization that submitted these proposals, Asociación de Periodistas de El Salvador, published a code of journalistic ethics during the year. Another press association, Contraportada, closed its doors on December 31 because it was unable to secure new funding.

Salvadoran journalists also suffer from limited resources, although working conditions have improved in recent years. Even so, journalists have limited access to archival material, including previously published stories, and most travel on El Salvador’s unreliable bus system even while covering breaking news. And because of their low salaries, journalists are vulnerable to bribery.