Managua, September 4, 2020 – Salvadoran authorities should make public any details about an alleged criminal investigation into InSight Crime journalist Héctor Silva Ávalos and stop using official social media channels to criticize and harass independent journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On September 1, Salvadoran news website La Página published an article reporting that the national Attorney General’s office had opened an investigation in 2016 into Silva Ávalos for alleged links to money laundering. The article mentions that Silva Ávalos was a government official during the presidency of Mauricio Funes and accuses him of involvement in a money-laundering scheme that involved selling horses.
Silva Ávalos told CPJ via phone that the only accurate statement in the article is that he was a diplomat between 2009 and 2012, during the Funes presidency. He told CPJ he is not aware of any investigation and that he believed the article was part of a pattern of “political harassment.”
“I have never received any notification from the Attorney General,” he said. CPJ called the attorney general’s office, but both numbers had a recording saying they were suspended. CPJ sent an email to the attorney general’s public information unit, but did not receive a response.
President Nayib Bukele tweeted the link to the article from his official Twitter account and followed up with multiple other tweets criticizing Silva Ávalos and accusing Salvadoran media outlets and international organizations like Human Rights Watch of trying to attack the Salvadoran government. Since September 1, the president has also retweeted dozens of comments criticizing the same journalists from other users, including one calling reporters from online investigative outlet El Faro “trash.”
“This effort to undermine an independent Salvadoran journalist is highly concerning, especially when the president himself is actively amplifying and encouraging it,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick in New York. “President Bukele and the government agencies under his control should refrain from harassing critical journalists and immediately clarify whether and why there is any investigation of Héctor Silva Ávalos.”
La Página was previously owned by businessman Jorge Hernández, who is now in prison for money laundering, according to El Faro. In 2017, the National Council of Property Administration seized Hernández’s assets, including La Página, which the state agency now manages, according to a report by the news website elsalvador.com.
Héctor Silva Ávalos is the co-founder of the Salvadoran online investigative magazine Factum and currently works for InSight Crime, a Colombia-based news outlet that publishes analysis and investigative stories about organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean. His work has focused on politics, security, and corruption in the region, and he has received threats in the past, according to the journalist.
Silva Ávalos told CPJ he is suing La Página for slander and that he believes this is an attack led by the Bukele government. CPJ has previously documented how President Bukele targets journalists on social media, taking part in smear campaigns that often lead to harassment by followers and other government officials.
CPJ emailed and called the Salvadoran presidency with the contact information listed on its website but did not receive any response. CPJ called the phone number listed on La Página’s website but that number was suspended.