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El Salvador’s response to COVID-19 excessively restricts fundamental rights, say CSOs

On 22nd March 2020, security forces in El Salvador began enforcing a government-mandated lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On the policy’s first night, 269 people across the country were detained for breaking the quarantine. Since emergency measures were implemented, local civil society organisations have urged public authorities to exercise exceptional powers responsibly, for instance by developing protocols to avoid illegal detentions. Press freedom advocates have also denounced that some of El Salvador’s restrictions during the pandemic may be excessively limiting journalistic work.

Association

Human rights lawyer Bertha María Deleón reported that she has endured online harassment after a spokesperson for a political party made reportedly false accusations against her on Twitter. Walter Araujo, whose party Nuevas Ideas supports president Nayib Bukele, posted a tweet on 20th February 2020 associating Deleón and another lawyer with political parties that he accused of having links with criminal groups. According to the defender, after this tweet she began receiving repeated attacks from Araujo’s followers through messages containing misogynistic insults, hate speech and false accusations seeking to intimidate her and discredit her work. Bertha has previously faced harassment on at least two other occasions for her work on human rights.

In a separate development, on 29th March 2020, president Nayib Bukele posted on his Twitter account: “Sometimes it seems that there are some “human rights” organisations which only work to ensure that more humans die”. The comment was a reaction to local civil society mobilisation denouncing that some emergency measures taken by the government during the COVID-19 pandemic may be unjustified, overly restricting fundamental rights. International organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have responded to condemn the stigmatisation of civil society and of defenders’ work. In a column published by digital newspaper El Faro, Amnesty International’s Americas Director, Erika Guevara Rosas wrote:

“President Bukele and his cabinet must be clear that the serious situation resulting from the pandemic cannot be resolved with government measures that exclude the respect for and guarantee of human rights. Combating the pandemic is a human rights issue, and the contributions of civil society organisations, which seek to improve the state’s response, should not be punished with public stigmatisation. Messages that seek to intimidate or silence those who only exercise their right to defend human rights are unacceptable.”

Expression

On 13th March 2020, human rights defender Montserrat Arévalo Alvarado endured online harassment after denouncing conditions of overcrowding and the lack of hygiene for persons held in quarantine in El Salvador during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alvarado, the director of feminist collective Mujeres Transformando, reported that after her post on Facebook went viral, she received several insulting comments which discredited herself and her work. Alvarado also reportedly received threatening private messages. According to human rights network IM-Defensoras, most of the comments included references to president Nayib Bukele, suggesting or demanding that the defender remain silent and refrain from questioning the measures implemented by the government.

Press restrictions during COVID-19 pandemic

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were recurrent reports of obstruction of journalistic work in El Salvador in March 2020. On 22nd March 2020, radio broadcasters’ organisation Asociación de Radiodifusión Participativa de El Salvador (ARPAS) denounced that members of the military forced a journalist of Radio Segundo Montes to delete the material he had recorded during a COVID-19 response operation in the Morazán department. According to ARPAS, the journalist was properly identified with his credentials and explained that he was carrying out work for their network.

Journalists’ association Asociación de Periodistas de El Salvador (APES) also denounced that restrictions during government-led press conferences have been repeated in the country during the COVID-19 crisis. On three separate occasions, APES stated, media outlets said their journalists were not allowed to ask questions during press conferences related to public health and emergency measures. APES condemned this practice, arguing that it affects the work of the press, and called on all officials to remain accessible and to refrain from obstructing the population’s right to public interest information. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)’s Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Edison Lanza, called the approach restrictive and said, “I don’t see that this emergency justifies the impediment to questions about the population’s health situation and government measures”.