El Salvador | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

El Salvador

Freedom of the Press 2016
Press Freedom Status: 
Partly Free
Political Environment: 
17 / 40 (↓1)
(0=BEST, 40=WORST)
Economic Environment: 
13 / 30 (↑1)
(0=BEST, 30=WORST)
Press Freedom Score: 
39 / 100
(0=BEST, 100=WORST)

Quick Facts

Population: 
6,366,000
Freedom in the World Status: 
Free
Internet Penetration Rate: 
29.7%

Overview

Journalists in El Salvador face some obstacles when performing their jobs. Investigative and critical outlets have been the targets of hostile rhetoric and legal threats from officials. Additionally, in 2015 the country experienced an upsurge in violence—especially gang-related killings and clashes between the government and gangs—undermining journalists’ ability to report freely.

 

Key Developments

 

  • In 2015, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén accused the media of promoting a “psychological terror” campaign against the government, following widespread reporting on increasing violence in the country.
  • In July, journalists from the investigative news website El Faro received death threats, and some said they were being closely watched by unknown persons, after the outlet reported on an alleged police massacre of seven suspected gang members and one witness to their killings.
  • In December, gang members briefly detained a cameraman with the television news program Código 21, and confiscated his cell phone before releasing him.

 

Legal Environment: 9 / 30

El Salvador’s constitution protects press freedom, and Salvadoran journalists are generally able to report freely. Critical coverage of the government and opposition parties is for the most part permitted. However, the government has taken antagonistic stances toward media. For example, after the press in March 2015 reported on record levels of violence in El Salvador, President Sánchez Cerén accused the media of promoting a “psychological terror” campaign against the government. Similarly, in April, National Defense Minister David Munguía Payés accused the opposition newspaper La Prensa Gráfica of attacking the armed forces, after the newspaper published a series of investigations into senior military officials’ alleged selling of weapons. 

State authorities and other parties have issued legal threats against investigative or critical outlets and reporters. In April and May 2015, the attorney general’s office threatened legal action against the newspaper La Página for allegedly disclosing confidential information related to a corruption investigation against former president Francisco Flores Pérez. The paper denounced the threat and continued its reporting, and ultimately no action was taken.

Imprisonment for slander, libel, and defamation was abolished in 2011, but such offenses are still adjudicated under the penal code, which prescribes fines and possible job suspensions of between six months and two years for journalists convicted of insult crimes. In October 2015, the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA), an ally of the ruling Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), brought forward a proposal to reestablish prison sentences for defamation. Following public backlash, the proposal was withdrawn in November. In May 2015, the president of the National Private Business Association (ANEP), following a report in the newspaper Transparencia Activa about businesses that owed large amounts of unpaid taxes, urged companies that were mentioned to file criminal charges against the outlet if they had been offended by the story. Media advocates and civil society groups called the threat an attempt to discourage investigative journalism. Journalists can be sued for defamation in civil courts.

A 2013 press law requires media outlets to publish or broadcast word-for-word “responses” from anyone who feels that coverage of them was inaccurate or offensive. This Special Law for the Right to Rectification or Response allows for jail sentences of one to three years for journalists, editors, or directors of media outlets that fail to publish verbatim letters of response within a certain time frame. La Prensa Gráfica has been criticized by the government in recent years for allegedly failing to provide administration officials with the right to respond. In December 2015, Julio Olivo, president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), claimed that the newspaper had violated the law after publishing an article claiming Olivo was under legal investigation, and had subsequently offered only to interview him rather than permitting him space for a response.

The Access to Public Information Law was approved in 2011, but various civil society organizations say access to information has deteriorated under the administration of President Sánchez Cerén, who took office in 2014. Critics indicate that his government has refused to provide data about state spending on advertising and official travel, even though disclosure of such information is required by law.

The 1997 Telecommunications Law does not provide special allowances for community media outlets. All radio frequencies are sold at public auction, making it difficult for small community stations to obtain operating licenses when competing against wealthy private-sector or state enterprises. In 2015, a coalition of journalists’ organizations, community media, academics, and civil society organizations continued to press the government to approve new laws regulating community broadcasters and public media. The Superintendent of Electricity and Telecommunications (SIGET), the regulatory body for broadcast media, has been accused of violating conflict-of-interest tenets in its decision making.

 

Political Environment: 17 / 40 (↓1)

Authorities sometimes pressure journalists at private and state-owned media outlets to avoid reporting on sensitive topics. In February 2015, the Supreme Court of Justice ruled that the communications ministry had acted improperly when, in 2013, it arbitrarily dismissed one of the top officials at the public broadcaster; the official, Raúl Gutiérrez, was known for his independence and critical reporting. Officials are known to deny official access to journalists with private outlets that have been critical of the government. President Sánchez Cerén regularly refuses to answer questions from journalists, and in March 2015, TSE president Olivo allowed only progovernment media outlets to attend a press conference he gave.

In 2015, the country experienced an upsurge in violence—especially gang-related killings and clashes between the government and gangs—undermining journalists’ ability to report freely. Journalists in El Salvador sometimes face threats and physical harassment while performing their jobs. In July, journalists from the investigative news website El Faro received death threats, and some said they were being closely watched by unknown persons, after the outlet published a high-profile story about an alleged police massacre of seven suspected gang members and one witness to their killings. And in December, gang members in San José de Soyapango briefly took a cameraman from the television news program Código 21 hostage, and demanded he show them footage he had recently recorded. They also took his cell phone before releasing him. 

Separately, in November, authorities made an arrest in connection with an earlier cyberattack against La Prensa Gráfica.

            

Economic Environment: 13 / 30 (↑1)

Concentration of ownership is an obstacle to a diverse and broadly representative media landscape. There are four daily newspapers, but the print sector is dominated by two powerful families that publish the leading dailies and numerous smaller periodicals. Most of the country depends on privately owned television and radio networks for news, and ownership in the broadcast sector is also highly concentrated. The Telecorporación Salvadoreña (TCS) owns three of the five national television networks, in addition to a host of radio stations. Community radio has been stifled by the restrictive provisions of the Telecommunications Law. Some 27 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2015, and there were no reported government restrictions on the medium. Online newspapers such as El Faro and ContraPunto are known for their independent investigative journalism.

However, a lack of resources inhibits many media outlets’ operations, and reporters often exercise self-censorship to avoid offending media owners, editors, and government officials. This problem is particularly pernicious in connection with government press advertising. Although exact figures are unknown, government advertising represents a substantial percentage of outlets’ revenue, creating an incentive for publishers to avoid antagonizing officials.