Managua, Nicaragua, September 30, 2020 – Salvadoran authorities should make public any details about an alleged money laundering investigation into the El Faro news website, and cease harassing independent media outlets, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
In a news conference on September 24, President Nayib Bukele announced that El Faro, an independent news website, was under investigation for money laundering, and accused a number of Salvadoran outlets including El Faro, the Revista Factum and Gato Encerrado news websites, and the La Prensa Gráfica newspaper of lying and “attacking” his government.
El Faro reporter and editor Oscar Martinez, who was awarded CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2016, told CPJ in a phone interview that the outlet has been subject to a tax audit since July, but said that authorities had never informed the website of a money laundering investigation.
Earlier this month CPJ documented a similar case, in which a Salvadoran state-managed media outlet reported, and President Bukele echoed on social media, that InSight Crime journalist Héctor Silva Ávalos was under investigation for money laundering, but also did not provide any proof or official notice.
“President Bukele appears committed to continuing his anti-press rhetoric and spreading rumors in a campaign to damage El Salvador’s independent media,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “President Bukele and the government agencies in his administration should refrain from harassing journalists and must immediately clarify if there is an investigation into El Faro, and, if so, drop it immediately.”
Martinez told CPJ that government tax auditors had requested information that seemed unrelated to El Faro’s taxes, including minutes from the board of directors meeting, which could include discussions of editorial topics and other internal details. On September 11, El Faro’s lawyers presented an appeal before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice requesting measures to prevent the Bukele administration from obtaining information unrelated to the outlet’s accounting practices, El Faro reported.
“The president said there was a serious investigation against us for money laundering. It seems like the reason why there has been a group of inspectors in our office for three weeks is that they were trying to build a money laundering case. It’s very curious because the president never said they had found any irregularities,” Martinez said.
CPJ emailed and called the Salvadoran office of the presidency, but did not receive any responses. CPJ emailed the Salvadoran General Directorate of Taxes, within the Ministry of the Treasury, but did not receive any reply.
Since taking office in June 2019, President Bukele and his supporters have repeatedly employed anti-press rhetoric against critical and independent outlets, CPJ has found.