WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
4 May 2016 | News

Legal Attacks on Salvadoran Journalist Héctor Silva Have a Chilling Effect on Freedom of Expression

WOLA Statement

Salvadoran journalist Héctor Silva Ávalos edits the online publication Revista Factum and works part time for the investigative website InSight Crime, based in Medellin, Colombia. He is, in addition, a research fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University. He has a long history as a journalist in El Salvador and has served in the Salvadoran diplomatic service. Much of Silva’s work—since his early days as a journalist for El Salvador’s daily La Prensa Gráfica—has focused on police, crime, and corruption. In 2014, he published a study of El Salvador’s National Civilian Police (Policía Nacional Civil, PNC) entitled Infiltrated: Chronicle of Corruption in the National Civilian Police (Infiltrados: Crónica de la corrupción en la PNC). In the past months, Silva has been publishing pieces on issues related to political corruption in El Salvador and its impact on the rule of law.

Recently, Silva published several pieces in Revista Factum on Salvadoran businessman José Enrique Rais, and his alleged connections with former Salvadoran Attorney General Luis Martínez and with various political figures. On April 26, Silva co-authored another article on Rais highlighting his ties to several private planes recently seized by U.S. authorities in Florida on suspicion that they had been used for transporting drugs. The stories are well-researched pieces of investigative reporting, based on interviews and documents.

Troublingly, Rais has responded to the articles by filing legal charges against Silva. He has accused Silva of defamation and sought to have a judge issue an arrest order for him. Rais’ attorneys appeared at the door of Silva’s mother’s home in San Salvador to deliver copies of documents. While WOLA does not know the motivation behind Rais’ acts, the effect of the acts themselves, taken together, appears to be intimidation, discouraging Silva, directly and through his family, from continuing his investigative reporting.

In its most recent report on the situation of Freedom of the Press in El Salvador, the Salvadoran Association of Journalists (Asociaciòn de Periodistas de El Salvador, APES) condemned Rais’ actions against Silva.

March 2016 report from the Committee to Protect Journalists describes the general problem with defamation suits against journalists in the Americas:

Laws that permit journalists to be prosecuted criminally for the content of their reporting are considered to present a hazard to freedom of the press and to the right of citizens to be informed. As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (“IACHR”) described in its 1994 Annual Report, such laws have an ‘inevitable chilling effect… on freedom of expression.’

There seems little doubt that, in this case, the lawsuit and the related actions have a chilling effect on investigative journalism. This is disturbing, not only for Silva and his family, but also because investigative journalism has proven itself, in Central America and elsewhere, to be an important tool for increasing accountability and transparency, and ultimately for deepening democracy.

Kristel Mucino
Communications Director, WOLA
+1 (202) 797-2171