Civil society targeted with surveillance
Two civil society organisations in El Salvador, FUSADES and FUNDE, have recently been targeted with surveillance. In early January, the president of the Salvadoran Foundation for Social and Economic Development (FUSADES) reported to the Attorney General's Office that a microphone had been found in the organisation's conference room. Following this discovery, the National Foundation for Development (FUNDE), Transparency International's chapter in El Salvador, hired a surveillance detection service, which found a microphone attached to the telephone in their Executive Director’s office. Past cases of espionage reported in El Salvador, some of which targeted CSOs, date back to 2009.
In a press release FUNDE demanded a thorough investigation, saying:
"There is no doubt that such interventions come from sectors that feel uncomfortable with our critical-constructive analyses, both in the field of socio-economic analysis and in our struggle against the mismanagement of public resources, opacity, corruption and impunity.
These practices of espionage with dark political purposes will not prevent us from continuing our mission to contibute to the development of the country and the well-being of all Salvadorans, particularly the poorest and most excluded sectors of our society.
The authorities have a duty to investigate and punish as instructed by the law those responsible for the illegal wiretapping. Failure to do so would send a message of impunity, opening the door to further and more aggressive attacks against civil society."
In addition to threats against the security and privacy of civil society, members of the LGBTI community face persecution and harassment within Salvadoran society. In this context, civil society provides crucial space for marginalised groups to organise and advocate for their rights and confront discrimination and rights violations. In February 2017, when three members of the transgender community were murdered, the civil society organisation Colectivo Normal redoubled its efforts to combat discrimination and stigmatisation of this sexual minority. It demanded an urgent investigation to bring those responsible to justice. Colectivo Normal also publicly criticised the Attorney General's office and the mainstream media for their biased and unfair treatment of transgender persons, as shown by the language used when reporting on the crime:
"The terminology used by the Attorney General and various media raises prejudice and promotes hatred, discrimination and stigmatisation of the transgender and transsexual community of El Salvador."
La Relatoría para la Libertad de Expresión, condena amenazas recibidas hacia el periodista Cristian Meléndez. pic.twitter.com/W190mpMDqV— APES (@apeselsalvador) December 6, 2016
On 1st December 2016, journalist Cristian Melendez of La Prensa Gráfica informed the Attorney General’s office that he had received death threats through social media. Sent from an anonymous account, the threatening messages accused him of being paid to write critically about the mayor of San Salvador Nayib Bukele. The messages also threatened Melendez with physical assault. A spokesperson of La Prensa Gráfica stated:
"Accounts like this are deceiving the population; they are misinforming them and inciting them to kill a journalist. This is an opportunity for legislators to legislate, because it is their obligation to defend the freedom of expression."
Tensions between the San Salvador local administration and the media grew as Bukele announced his decision to sue La Prensa Gráfica after it published a report on a case of possible corruption involving the local government. The newspaper, along with civil society organisations promoting press freedom, rejected the Mayor's announcement, asserting that the investigation of the corruption case had been rigorous and professionally conducted. They also reminded the public that criticism is a key component of independent journalism in a democratic society. To date, no defamation lawsuit has been filed.
On 26th January 2017, the Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES) expressed concern when at least 13 journalists were laid off from the online publication, Diario de Hoy. Although no official explanation was provided, local newspapers reported that the dismissals could have been brought about because the journalists had reached retirement age. According to APES, Salvadoran journalists are often afraid of potential retaliation and are therefore reluctant to bring cases involving labour law violations to the Attorney General or the Ministry of Labour. As the president of APES, Serafín Valencia, explained:
"There are journalists who are not willing to even allow for their names to be mentioned in our public statements, [but] we need to make the denunciation public at least through statements for the general protection of the journalism profession."
On 23rd February 2017, FUSADES launched a report on the legal and institutional situation in the country during the second half of 2016. According to the report, respect for freedom of expression did not improve during this period, a picture which was also reflected in the slightly worsening rating for El Salvador in the World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index for 2016.
Hoy se dio a conocer el Índice de Estado de Derecho del World Justice Project. El Salvador en posición global N.66/99 http://t.co/tHfe8VqpYW— lilliam arrieta (@arrieta_lili) March 5, 2014
On 30th January 2017, teachers’ unions began protesting outside the offices of the educational institution of La Paz, demanding the resignation of the Director, Patricia Alvarado. Tensions rose as the protest continued for several days, and was accompanied by a strong police presence. The teachers also reported the presence of gang members who broke into the premises, presumably to implicate the teachers in the break in; however, no cases of direct physical attack against protesters were reported.