No other journalists are remembered quite like this. Visitors looking through the glass display at the Monsignor Romero Center & Martyrs Museum in San Salvador see the pajamas and other clothes that three Jesuit university priests were wearing when they were shot down by automatic rifle fire. A series of clear containers are filled with dark blades of grass cut from the campus lawn where each had spilled his blood.
These priests were slain back in 1989 by El Salvador’s U.S.-backed military leadership during the largest battle of the nation’s long civil war. In a decision seen as a press freedom milestone, CPJ considered the three university Jesuits (who were slain along with three other Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter to eliminate witnesses) to be journalists. The names of Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró, and Segundo Montes are also etched into the glass plates of the Journalists Memorial at the Newseum in Washington.
The three university Jesuits had independently chronicled events and criticized policies through a decade of war after tens of thousands of Salvadorans, many of them independent critics, were murdered or driven into exile. At a time when two right-wing dailies dominated domestic news, the Jesuit university weekly newsletter and bimonthly journal ran analysis and commentary along with select foreign stories in translation, including a few of mine.
The Salvadoran press is diverse today, much like the nation’s politics. The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, the party bearing the name of a 1930s-era revolutionary leader, is now in power. A former leftist guerrilla is now a critical columnist for the nation’s most conservative daily. And a new generation of talented investigative journalists is emerging.
But all of this is happening in a professional void in El Salvador, which does not have a long tradition of independent journalism. The generational evolution of journalistic mentors passing on lessons to the next crop of reporters is largely missing here, along with a strong professional culture and sense of solidarity.
I returned to El Salvador last week to help lead a workshop on journalist security at a far-ranging event called the Central American Journalism Forum. The event was organized by the online news outlet El Faro, which is subsidized by the Open Society Foundations. The very notable speakers included Frank La Rue, the U.N. special rapporteur for free expression, the Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú, and the legendary investigative journalists Gustavo Gorriti of Peru and Monica Gonzalez of Chile.
But only a handful of journalists from El Salvador and other Central American nations joined in the conference. Neither the dynamic Salvadoran online magazine ContraPunto run by the son of a legendary guerrilla leader murdered in internecine violence, nor the fledging Salvadoran press freedom group, APES, or Association of El Salvador Journalists, which recently called a press conference to defend El Faro, were given roles at the forum.
Journalists working in risky nations such as Colombia and Brazil have learned that solidarity in the press corps is essential to survival. After seeing dozens of their colleagues murdered, leading journalists in each of those nations organized press freedom groups to combat anti-press crimes, and collaborative investigative groups to diffuse the risk while working on sensitive stories.
Many people think journalist security involves the use of encrypted files and counter-surveillance techniques–and those practices do have their place. But security is really a way of thinking, a way of approaching your work. And fostering professional solidarity is crucial to that approach.
Isolation can be dangerous, and one recent episode in El Salvador illustrates the potential risk. In March, Security and Justice Minister David Munguía Payés called a press conference to respond to a hard-hitting story by El Faro–and invited reporters from every major news outlet except El Faro. During the press conference the security minister said El Faro journalists could be in danger for their reporting; in response to a question, he raised the case of a French journalist murdered here three years ago.
El Faro and the French journalist, a documentarian and contributor to ContraPunto, were investigating gangs. Most notably, El Faro had exposed the secret transfer of imprisoned gang leaders to less restrictive jails. The minister took issue with some aspects of El Faro‘s reporting.
Last week, I asked Munguía Payés at a public event whether his comments were intended to threaten El Faro‘s journalists. No, he replied, although he admitted that not inviting the online news magazine’s reporters to the press conference was a mistake. No doubt, but solidarity among the Salvadoran press corps was also lacking.
Journalists did not appear to object to El Faro‘s exclusion from the press conference, “especially those that in some way enjoy certain privileges of political or economic power in the country,” noted one blogger and University of El Salvador photojournalism graduate.
Journalists in Colombia and Brazil have paid a terrible price for their in-depth reporting: They have been murdered, assaulted, kidnapped, and forced to flee. El Salvador’s new generation of journalists has not been tested so severely yet, but these talented reporters would do well to be proactive, to work together, and to speak as one on the issues that endanger them all.
They are picking up where the late Jesuits left off, cutting their own swaths. But, this time, blood should not be spilled.
(Reporting from San Salvador)
UPDATE: This post has been corrected in the thirteenth paragraph to reflect that the blogger is a photojournalism graduate of University of El Salvador, not Jesuit university as previously stated.