El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele with U.S. President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 25, 2019. Journalists in El Salvador told CPJ that online harassment has intensified since Bukele came to power in June. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele with U.S. President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 25, 2019. Journalists in El Salvador told CPJ that online harassment has intensified since Bukele came to power in June. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Salvadoran President Bukele’s anti-press rhetoric echoes Trump

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Mariana Belloso, a Salvadoran journalist and radio presenter, was home after work with her family on June 30 when she was retweeted by the president, she told CPJ in October. Then the abuse began.

Belloso had used her Twitter account that evening to quote President Nayib Bukele, then in office for just 30 days, describing a security plan to curtail criminal gangs at a press conference. Bukele’s retweet commented: “A half-told truth is worse than a thousand lies.”

“I am increasingly convinced that there are journalists who want our security plan to fail,” Bukele added in another tweet.

Belloso, who has used Twitter for over a decade, described the abuse and sexualized threats that followed as unprecedented, even though she responded to diffuse the confrontation. After she clarified that his security plan was limited to certain areas, Bukele even thanked her.

The online attacks spread to Facebook and the comments section of Belloso’s columns at the daily La Prensa Gráfica, she told CPJ. One tweet published in July asked how she would feel when the security plan failed and she was raped by a gang member, according to CPJ’s review of an archived copy. She became known as “the journalist who was attacked by the president and his trolls,” she said. Some of her sources refused to talk, citing the president’s criticism. She suspected she was being followed, and even contemplated leaving the country, she said.

“[When] the president singles you out and puts you in a place for everyone to attack…there is no balance of power,” Belloso told CPJ.

Under former President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who was in office between 2014 and 2019, “there was more respect to journalists’ role on the part of the presidency,” Fabricio Altamirano, editor and publisher of one of the country’s largest newspapers, El Diario de Hoy, told CPJ. “There was no obsession with the official narrative from the government to be put forth as the truth of the land, as there is now.”

In Bukele’s first six months in office, journalists report being excluded from presidential press conferences, and at least one disabling cyberattack on a news website. El Diario de Hoy saw government advertising suspended after it covered one of these developments, according to Altamirano. And several Salvadoran journalists told CPJ that they have been threatened online for reporting on Bukele’s anti-gang measures and other political developments since he came to power. While there is no evidence that he directs others to harass the press online, he openly derogates the profession and its representatives, and does nothing to stem the ensuing abuse, they said.

CPJ emails and a Twitter message requesting comment from Bukele’s presidential office and Neto Sanabria his press secretary received no response before publication. Emails and WhatsApp messages to Sofía Medina, his communications secretary went unanswered.

In the past, CPJ has called “rampant gang-related violence” the most sensitive issue for the Salvadoran press. At least three journalists have been killed in El Salvador since CPJ began tracking work-related murders in 1992, but no such killings have been documented since 2011.

More recently, some journalists say they feel uneasy amid the increasingly violent online threats, combined with new offline barriers to access and other apparent sanctions.

“The signals are not good,” Nelson Rauda Zablah, investigative journalist with El Faro, El Salvador’s first entirely digital news outlet, told CPJ of press freedom under Bukele.

“President Bukele doesn’t want independent journalism,” Fernando Romero of news website Revista Factum told CPJ.

“[When] the president singles you out and puts you in a place for everyone to attack…there is no balance of power,” Belloso told CPJ.

The first president from outside the two major parties since the end of El Salvador’s civil war in 1992, Bukele routinely criticizes the media for “fake news” on Twitter. Several journalists interviewed by CPJ compared him to U.S. President Donald Trump, whose negative Twitter rhetoric about the press is echoed by authoritarian leaders in China, Russia, and beyond, CPJ has found. CPJ has separately documented incidents of journalists facing online harassment following mentions by elected officials in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Peru, among other countries.

Bukele is “a master of Twitter and Facebook,” Tim Muth, a lawyer who moves between Wisconsin and San Salvador and author of the blog El Salvador Perspectives, told CPJ via phone in November. “If Bukele said somebody is the enemy of what he wants to accomplish, his online followers will act on that.”

Like President Trump, Muth told CPJ, Bukele uses a “conscious strategy…to disparage his critics in the world of investigative journalism, calling them fake news so that people won’t believe the reporting.”

“Both presidents demean and attack the messenger rather than answering their questions,” Zablah told CPJ of Bukele and Trump.

Edison Lanza, special rapporteur for freedom of expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), told CPJ in November that being publicly undermined by an elected official could be “very dangerous” for the press, “particularly in Latin America where violence against journalists and impunity are rampant.” It exposes them to “risk, including physical risk,” he said. In October 2019 the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), an advocacy group of media organizations in North America, South America and the Caribbean, said in a resolution that stigmatizing the press “sometimes triggers physical violence.”

“The question is what precautions I have to take,” Karen Fernández, a presenter with Focos TV, told CPJ by phone in November. Like Belloso, she became a target in June after she criticized conditions for prisoners arrested under Bukele’s security plan, she said. Her tweet published at the time said Bukele had retweeted her comments without adequate context. “Hundreds of his followers responded with threats of sexual violence and discrediting my work,” her tweet said.

The responses felt “more aggressive” than the kind she has been exposed to before, she told CPJ. Harassment that followed her 2018 interview with the former vice president “essentially focused on delegitimizing my work,” she said. But since June, she has been more aware of explicit threats against her and her family. “My perception of the risk was different,” she said.

Journalists interviewed by CPJ could not point to any research suggesting that Bukele controls or incentivizes Twitter accounts that threaten journalists. Yet his influence over discourse on the platform is evident. In July, for example, a Twitter account using the name Lazmen shared an image encouraging his nearly 2,000 followers to “mute or block” Fernández, Belloso, and Bessy Ríos, a social media activist. Lazmen frequently posts messages supporting Bukele’s administration, according to CPJ’s review, and the tweet joked that the instruction came from the “Ministry of Trolls.” It began with “Se les ordena” (you are ordered) in a direct imitation of Bukele, who used some variation of the phrase more than 60 times on Twitter in his first month in office, often in jest, according to CPJ’s review.

The impact of this discourse is harder to assess. It’s not clear how other Twitter users interpreted or acted on Lazmen’s instruction.

“The question is what precautions I have to take,” Karen Fernández, a presenter with Focos TV, told CPJ.

But journalists have told CPJ of press freedom issues beyond social media since Bukele’s inauguration. In September, Gabriel Labrador of El Faro and Revista Factum’s Romero were barred from a presidential press conference, a sanction Bukele officially announced on Twitter. Both outlets had criticized his administration, CPJ reported at the time.

El Diario de Hoy documented that exclusion, and saw government advertising contracts amounting to about two percent of its 2019 revenue withdrawn the next day for “denouncing” the action, according to Altamirano, and a report by the Salvadoran delegation to the IAPA, of which he is a member. Altamirano told CPJ an unrelated tender his publishing company had won to print material for the Ministry of Education was cancelled at the same time “with an intent to damage our group financially,” something he said has “never happened in the last ten years.”

CPJ requested comment from two public Ministry of Education email addresses and a third provided by a Twitter handle representing the ministry, but received no response before publication.

A cyberattack separately devastated Revista Factum in October, making the website inaccessible for about a week, according to Romero. “Many suspect that the attackers are motivated by the constant disparagement of [Revista Factum] by Bukele,” Tim Muth wrote at the time. Romero told CPJ that he and his colleagues had no grounds to suspect that the attack was directly inspired by Bukele.

Zablah told CPJ that he and his colleagues just “bulletproof our pieces” in response to the pressure.

“The worst thing I could do is be quiet,” said Belloso, who has continued to publish columns and tweets since June. “Our country needs journalists now more than ever.”

For information on digital safety and online harassment, see CPJ’s emergency response resources.

CPJ Central America correspondent Dánae Vílchez contributed reporting from Amsterdam.