By Luke Taylor
El Faro has survived many pressures in its 25 years reporting on El Salvador’s bloody drug wars, crime and institutional corruption.
“We’ve been harassed. We’ve received death threats from drug cartels, requiring us to contract armed security guards. And we’ve had the police coming to our houses after we revealed their corruption scandals,” said Óscar Martínez, editor of the online investigative outlet. “Some of our journalists have been exiled, but we have managed to continue reporting from San Salvador.”
Now, the digital publication says it is leaving the Central American country to escape a ratcheting clampdown on press freedom by its increasingly dictatorial president, Nayib Bukele.
El Faro is moving its headquarters to San José, Costa Rica, to avoid what it says are “fabricated accusations” from the government intended to shut them down.
“This time we have no choice but to leave because it’s not one group that is after us. It is the entire state,” said Martínez.
Under Bukele’s rule, human rights watchdogs have warned of a steady erosion of El Salvador’s democracy.
The strongman’s hard line on crime has brought him mass popularity at home, but observers say at a great cost to human rights.
The Bukele government has marched armed soldiers into a court hearing, stacked the country’s judicial systems with loyalists and ruled with emergency powers for more than a year, incarcerating so many people that it had to build a new megaprison.
“Bukele is an autocrat on steroids,” said Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, president of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “The speed with which he has co-opted all levels of power, in just one presidential period, is astonishing.”
As the millennial leader has concentrated his power he has also curtailed the freedom of the press. The Bukele government introduced a law that can jail journalists for 15 years for reporting on the country’s drug-trafficking gangs and at least 22 Salvadoran journalists – most of whom report for El Faro – have had their phones tapped with the aggressive Israeli spyware Pegasus.
Bukele’s attacks on the media are part of his strategy to control the narrative inside and outside the country as he tries to brand El Salvador as a safe, tropical bitcoin-friendly paradise, said Mario Gómez, a Salvadoran software engineer who fled the capital in 2021.
Gómez was detained by the national police after criticising a law which obliged all Salvadorans to accept the cryptocurrency.
“It’s really hard to show what is going on in El Salvador when you have a propaganda machine making sure the reality that journalists or in fact anyone wants to say about the government is delegitimised,” he said.
While some Salvadoran media have been pressured into self-censorship or shutting down entirely, El Faro continues to expose a number of high-profile scandals, putting it in the crosshairs of the government.
“We know that the government is running polygraph tests on officials to see if they have spoken with us,” said Martínez.
Among the publication’s investigations it has revealed a controversial deal the government brokered with powerful gangs to lower the homicide rate in exchange for not extraditing crime bosses to the US.
In response, the Bukele administration is “threatening, surveilling and defaming El Faro” to force it out of the country, the publication said in a statement. “The president even used state television and radio to falsely accuse us of money laundering.”
Though Martínez said the accusations are entirely baseless, the editors fear they cannot defend themselves in a state which no longer has rule of law.
“This is a country that no longer has a separation of powers, a country where one man alone controls those powers, and that man has accused us directly of money laundering. This makes it impossible for us to defend ourselves,” the editor said. “This is an aggressive step to protect our journalists and what our journalists do.”
While El Faro is relocating, it says it will keep as much of its team in the country as possible.
“Though this is a blow editorially, we will continue working independently and critically to expose the Bukele regime,” said Martínez. “We leave as a way to stay.”
Credit: The Guardian