“It is concerning that a journalist wearing his press credentials while reporting was arrested and has been held in an ICE facility for the past month," said Margaux Ewen, Director of RSF’s North America bureau. "Manuel Duran Ortega came to the United States after fleeing life-threatening situations in his home country and has been well-known in Memphis for covering controversial issues related to local and federal law enforcement ever since. We urge the US government to consider the consequences of sending an investigative journalist back to a country where he has faced death threats.”
Duran fled to the United States in 2006 after receiving death threats in El Salvador for his work at a television station, where he reported on corruption in law enforcement and the judicial system. After moving to Memphis he worked for several radio and news outlets, including La Voz and Radio Ambiente, before launching Memphis Noticias. In 2007 he was issued an order for removal after he failed to appear in court, though Duran maintains he never received notice to appear for a judge. ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox said in a statement: "He has been an immigration fugitive since that time."
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit civil rights legal advocacy group that is representing Duran, filed a petition in federal court on April 13 for Duran’s release, claiming he was targeted by the US government in an attempt to stop him from reporting and thus his rights to freedom of speech and the press were infringed upon. The petition cites Duran’s reporting on issues including poor conditions at ICE facilities, police shootings, and local police collaborations with ICE, and says that Duran had numerous interactions with local police since he began reporting in Memphis. Following the publication of a July 2017 story on collaboration between the Memphis Police Department and ICE at a traffic stop, a Memphis police officer texted Duran asking him to take the story down and meet with a senior police department official.
The SPLC’s petition also cites the dangerous climate for media workers in El Salvador, which has worsened in recent years. According to RSF, several media outlets, such as Revista Factum or El Faro, have been victims of threats, intimidations, and judicial persecution for reporting on abuses of power and excessive police violence. Sixteen journalists have been killed in the country since 1992 and most of their murderers continue to enjoy impunity. Salvador’s legislation provides the media with little protection, and officials harass and threaten journalists who try to investigate corruption or government finances.
Duran is not the only foreign reporter being held by ICE and who may face deportation; Mexican journalist Emilio Gutierrez Soto and his 24-year-old son, who were taken into ICE custody in December, continue to be held in a detention center near El Paso, Texas, while awaiting a decision on their request for asylum.
Duran is also the second journalist arrested in the United States this year, according to the US Press Freedom Tracker. The first journalist who was arrested in 2018 was briefly taken into police custody for talking on his phone in the New York State Senate building and was released from police custody shortly afterward.
The United States ranks 45th and El Salvador ranks 66th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
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