The digital news outlet El Faro, founded in El Salvador in 1998 and hailed for its independent investigative reporting, has decided to move its administrative and legal operations out of the country amid what it describes as a campaign of government harassment.
In an editorial on Thursday, the outlet said that it registered on April 1 as a non-profit in San Jose, Costa Rica, though it stressed that its newsroom remains in El Salvador and plans to continue work as usual.
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“Under the government of Nayib Bukele, campaigns originating in Casa Presidencial [the Presidential House] have sought to defame and discredit El Faro and its employees,” the editorial states.
“We have faced physical surveillance and threats, Pegasus spyware attacks, harassment of advertisers, and defamation from public officials and ruling-party legislators.”
The decision comes as human rights and press freedom groups express growing concern over the state of democracy and civil liberties in El Salvador.
#efEditorial | #ElSalvador no longer enjoys the right to legitimate defense and public officials’ will is placed above the law. That is why El Faro moved its legal registration out of the country. Read more in our latest editorial via @elfaroenglish. 🧵 https://t.co/gsa6U20pI5
— El Faro (@_elfaro_) April 14, 2023
First elected in 2019, President Bukele has led a brutal crackdown on gangs over the last year, a campaign that has proved widely popular and brought respite to many in El Salvador after years of violence.
But critics say any gains in public safety have come at a steep price. Key civil liberties have been suspended under a “state of exception” that has been in place for more than a year, and tens of thousands of people have faced arbitrary detention, with reports of abuses such as torture and in-custody deaths.
“More than 66,000 people have been detained, many of them arbitrarily. There have been massive, systemic rights violations,” Duncan Tucker, the regional media manager for the Americas division of the human rights group Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera in a recent phone call. “There has been a dismantling of the rule of law in the country.”
Bukele has also been criticised for removing checks on his authority and attacking perceived rivals, with the investigative reporting of El Faro among his favourite targets.
“Throughout Central America, governments are criminalising journalism that they see as going against their interests. It is not there yet, but El Salvador is moving very quickly towards becoming another Nicaragua,” Carlos Dada, the co-founder of El Faro, told Al Jazeera in a phone call.
“We decided we had to take El Faro out of Bukele’s reach. He does not want any narrative in the country other than his own.”
The outlet says that such attacks have come in many forms, from surveillance and spyware to televised speeches by Bukele lashing out at the publication and its reporters.
Most troubling, Dada said, were several audits from the country’s Treasury Ministry and what he called “fabricated criminal accusations of tax evasion”.
El Faro says it is appealing those accusations but that there is no longer a separation of powers that guarantees the independence of the judiciary.
“What chance for legal defense is there when the president makes accusations without evidence and controls the entire judicial apparatus and the three branches of government?” the outlet said in Thursday’s editorial.
Roman Gressier is one of 22 known cases of individuals at El Faro who had their phone infiltrated by Pegasus, a spyware product made by the Israeli surveillance firm the NSO Group. The cases were confirmed by digital watchdog groups Access Now and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.
“The attacks lined up very neatly with our investigative reporting, major political events in El Salvador, and government attacks on our newsroom,” Gressier told Al Jazeera in a phone call. “You feel that your life and property has been violated. You don’t know who has your information or what they are going to do with it.”
The Bukele administration has denied using Pegasus spyware to monitor journalists and claimed its own officials have had their phones hacked.
But the NSO Group says that it sells its products exclusively to government agencies, and a report by Citizen Lab found that the Pegasus attacks on Salvadoran journalists and activists had come from within El Salvador, concluding that the government’s involvement was “very likely”.
In 2021, the United States took the rare step of placing the NSO Group under sanctions, citing its use by governments to “silence dissent” and surveil journalists and human rights groups.
Concerns over press freedom
Press freedom associations also say that the Bukele government has created a hostile atmosphere for the country’s media outlets by routinely using rhetoric that vilifies reporters.
Last April, Bukele called a gang researcher “trash” in a post on Twitter. Shortly after, Bukele’s Director of the Prison Service tweeted that El Faro journalists were “terrorists”, “mercenaries” and spokespeople for criminal gangs.
Around the same time, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly also passed a bill threatening publications with prison time if they share materials said to replicate gang messaging.
Tucker, the regional media manager for Amnesty International, said the law was “vaguely worded” and could be weaponised against outlets reporting on gang issues if the government finds their coverage unfavourable.
According to Asociacion de Periodistas de El Salvador (APES), a Salvadoran press freedom organisation, recorded instances of hostile behaviour towards journalists increased from 77 cases in 2019, when Bukele was first elected, to 125 cases in 2020. That number then jumped to 220 cases in 2021.
Dada said the hostility towards journalism is part of a larger push to decrease the space available for alternative voices and independent institutions.
“We may have higher visibility, but we are far from the only ones,” Dada said. “Journalism is one of the last remaining places of resistance, although not the only one. We are determined to continue reporting in El Salvador for as long as we can.”