Attacks on the Press 2002: El Salvador

A decade after El Salvador’s long and bitter civil war, the country’s media remain polarized between conservative, pro-government groups and a small number of independent outlets.

TV DOCE, a television station recognized as one of the few independent voices during the brutal civil conflict, was derided in August by the pro-government, San Salvador-based daily El Diario de Hoy as a “communist advocate.” The paper has also lambasted the local press freedom organization Asociación de Periodistas de El Salvador (Association of Salvadoran Journalists, APES) for having “no credibility” and has denounced the group’s ethics code, which was created in 1999.

While politically divided, all Salvadoran journalists continue to labor under restrictive access to information laws, while the Penal Code, which went into effect in 1998, impedes coverage of the courts by giving individual judges the power to limit access to legal proceedings. During 2002, APES presented several proposals to reform statutes that inhibit press freedom, but the government considered none of them seriously.

In September, the Legislative Assembly approved a law reforming the government’s auditing agency, the Court of Accounts. Currently, journalists have free access to audit reports as soon as they are submitted to the agency. With the reform, however, such reports will remain sealed until the auditing process is completed. Because the new law sets no time limits on the auditing process, documents could be sealed indefinitely. APES and Probidad, a nongovernmental anti-corruption organization, have both criticized the legislation.

On August 15, the assembly approved the National Defense Bill, which could have limited journalists’ right to protect their sources. But in early September, following protests, President Francisco Flores returned the bill to the legislature, requesting that lawmakers revise the measure to conform to international agreements signed by El Salvador. The assembly approved a new version of the bill without the offending restriction on September 12.

Although CPJ documented no cases of journalists who were prosecuted or physically threatened in retaliation for their reporting in 2002, the government imposed advertising embargoes on media outlets that criticized the administration’s policies.

Salvadoran journalists expressed concern that some media outlets censor their own journalists. Juan José Dalton, a columnist at the San Salvador-based daily La Prensa Gráfica, commended the July decision of a Florida jury that held two retired Salvadoran generals responsible for atrocities committed during the country’s civil war and ordered the men to pay US$54.6 million to three torture victims. Dalton, however, criticized the Salvadoran government for not bringing those who tortured and murdered civilians during the war to justice. The paper canceled the column before publication, saying the article might “open wounds” and does not support El Salvador’s “democratic stability.”