Attacks on the Press 2004: El Salvador

El Salvador

During the March 2004 presidential elections, partisan divisions in the Salvadoran press intensified, while journalists continued to face serious restrictions on access to government information. In a positive development, on October 28 the National Assembly approved reforms of the Salvadoran Penal Code that, among other things, protect journalists from being forced to reveal their sources and partially decriminalize defamation.

Mainstream pro-government outlets—including the conservative dailies El Diario de Hoy (The Daily of Today) and La Prensa Gráfica (The Graphic Press); Telecorporación Salvadoreña, the country’s largest TV broadcaster; and the majority of private radio stations—skewed their coverage in favor of the new president, right-wing politician Antonio Saca, while harshly criticizing his opponent, Schafik Hándal. Meanwhile, pro-Hándal outlets like the daily CoLatino (CoLatin), television station TV DOCE, and Mayavisión Radio lambasted Saca.

Since Saca took office on June 1, relations between the local press and the government, which were tense under former President Francisco Flores, have improved, according to many journalists. William Meléndez, a member of the Ethics Commission of the local press group Asociación de Periodistas de El Salvador (Association of Salvadoran Journalists), believes that Saca, a former sportscaster who owns several radio stations, better understands the media’s role in a democratic society. By year’s end, the Saca administration had not reinstated the policy of using advertising embargoes to punish critical news outlets, a tool used by his party’s last three presidents. Journalists say that the distribution of state advertising has been fairer, though no criteria or rules have been established.

Lack of access to government information still limits Salvadoran journalists. The Penal Code, which went into effect in 1998, impedes coverage of the courts by empowering individual judges to limit access to legal proceedings for reasons of public interest or national security. But according to the nongovernmental anticorruption organization Probidad, the code vaguely defines when those reasons apply, giving judges wide latitude to restrict media access. Moreover, the Legislative Assembly and all other government agencies keep administrative decisions, including budgets, government contracts, internal reports, and personnel decisions, confidential.