Salvadoran news website threatened for its reporting

New York, March 21, 2012–The editor of the Salvadoran news website El Faro says his staff members have been followed after the site reported on a criminal network involving politicians. In addition, he said a senior government official told the staff last week that gang members were angered by coverage of alleged ties between law enforcement officials and local gangs, and might retaliate.

In May 2011, El Faro published an article titled “El cartel de Texis” (The Texis Cartel), which described an organized crime network–involving gang leaders, prominent businessmen, and local politicians–in northeast El Salvador. The paper used anonymous police sources for the article, Carlos Dada, the site’s founder and director, told CPJ.

Dada told CPJ that in February, nine months after the story ran, the site’s staff members reported unidentified persons following and photographing them. Dada said he suspected the police were following staff members to identify sources for the May article. The minister of security, retired Gen. David Munguía Payés, told CPJ he had no knowledge of anyone following El Faro staff members and that no such order had come from any government office.

On March 14, El Faro published a report describing secret negotiations in which gangs would limit killings in exchange for government concessions like having incarcerated members transferred to a lower-security prison. The government denied the accusations in a press conference on Friday, according to news reports.

Government officials held a closed-door meeting on Friday with members of several media organizations, but did not invite El Faro staff, Dada told CPJ. In the meeting, officials said they had intelligence suggesting gang members were angered by the El Faro article and that the site’s staff was in danger, Dada said.

The next day, Security Minister Munguía Payés told El Faro staff they were at risk of being attacked by the gangs, but did not volunteer any more information and did not offer any protection for the staff, Dada said.

When asked about the threats made to El Faro‘s staff, Munguía Payés told CPJ the ministry had a “responsibility to give protection to any Salvadoran who is at risk and is threatened.” He said the police had complied with this responsibility by notifying El Faro about the information they received, and that they were in the process of confirming the credibility of the threats. If the threats were corroborated, he said, they would discuss possible protection measures with El Faro.

Dada said El Faro‘s staff members were confused by the origin and severity of the threats. He said he didn’t know if this was an attempt to “silence us, or if there is really information that we are under threat.” Dada said he had not requested protection.

“We are concerned about the safety of El Faro‘s staff and are monitoring the situation very closely,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “We hold the Salvadoran government responsible for their well-being.”

CPJ research shows that journalists covering El Salvador’s widespread gang violence risk becoming targets themselves. In 2009, Christian Poveda, a French-Spanish filmmaker who had documented gang violence in El Salvador for decades, was slain by members of the Mara 18 gang.