During a press conference livestreamed on Facebook on 24 September, President Bukele accused the country’s leading online media outlets, El Faro, Revista Factum and Gato Encerrado, and the newspapers La Prensa Gráfica and El Diario de Hoy of lying, attacking the government and waging an orchestrated political campaign ahead of next year’s legislative elections.
And without providing any supporting information or evidence, Bukele also announced that El Faro was being investigated for money laundering. The newspaper responded that it was completely unaware of the existence of any such investigation and had received no notification from the judicial authorities. In July, El Faro began being subjected to a finance ministry audit that is marred by many irregularities, according to the newspaper’s editor, José Luis Sanz.
One of Latin America’s leading practitioners of investigative journalism and an outspoken critic of the government, El Faro reported on 3 September that the authorities were negotiating with Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), a criminal gang with 17,000 members, to get a reduction in the number of murders in El Salvador in return for better prison conditions for jailed members and votes for the president’s party, Nueva Ideas, which is run by a member of his family.
Bukele has denied the report but the judicial authorities opened a formal investigation on 7 September to determine whether the government really has maintained relations with the gang.
“President Bukele’s repeated attacks and threats against journalists critical of his administration signal an extremely worrying shift towards authoritarianism,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of RSF’s Latin America bureau.
“The systematic denigration and attempts to create the image of a press that is the enemy of the people are not just dangerous and counter-productive. They also reinforce the entire society’s mistrust of journalists, whose reporting is nonetheless vital in a country badly affected by violence and corruption.”
Although he claims to defend media freedom and, during the 24 September press conference, again promised to “guarantee freedom of expression 100% and freedom of the press to the utmost,” Bukele often adopts an aggressive stance towards the media and blocks many journalists on social media.
As well as the leading newspapers critical of the government, the El Salvador Journalists’ Association (APES) has also been the target of many attacks by the president and his supporters since the start of the year, especially on social media.
Amid the growing tension, President Bukele announced on Twitter on 30 September that the government was launching a new TV news programme called El Salvador on the state-owned Canal 10 channel. Promoted by no less a person than the president, the new programme began being broadcast on 5 October.
According to the president’s office, it will provide the government with “its own window, its own voice.” In other words, it will broadcast “propaganda financed with public funds,” said Edison Lanza, the special rapporteur for freedom of expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an Organization of American States offshoot.
During the first half of 2020, RSF reported that the Salvadorean media were having difficulty covering the Covid-19 crisis, in large part because of a lack of government transparency.
El Salvador is ranked 74th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.