Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua are going through one of their worst democratic governance crises in recent years. Their populations are the most affected by authoritarian practices that translate into a lack of opportunities and the absence of a dignified life. In addition, fundamental rights such as political participation, access to information, and freedom of expression have been deeply violated and are rapidly deteriorating.
The most recent manifestation of this crisis is an authoritarian wave that criminalizes, attacks, and persecutes independent justice operators, human rights defenders, and journalists, whose voices have been critical of power.
The arrest of journalist Jose Ruben Zamora, editor of El Periódico de Guatemala, on July 30 is the most recent and one of the most serious in the list of recent attacks on the press in the region. This is alarming because a democratic system cannot be consolidated without freedom of the press, an independent justice system, and access to the media.
In Zamora’s case, the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s Office insists that the investigation was not motivated by his journalistic work, however, everything indicates the contrary. As was the case with journalist Carlos Chamorro and several others in Nicaragua, Zamora is being prosecuted for the crime of money laundering as part of a persecution strategy similar to that of the Ortega-Murillo regime. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele also announced that prosecutors are investigating the digital newspaper El Faro, the country’s most important investigative media outlet, for money laundering.
Zamora and El Periódico represent Guatemala’s most critical journalism as the outlet has exposed corruption, abuses of power, and cronyism in the country’s economic and political elites, including President Alejandro Giammattei and Attorney General Consuelo Porras.
Multiple international human rights organizations, including WOLA, have condemned Zamora’s arrest and the recent closure of Catholic Church radio stations in Nicaragua, which they have linked to the government’s interest in concentrating power and co-opting democratic institutions for their own benefit.
The attacks on the independent press in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua are the actions of authoritarian states that do not comply with international human rights obligations, such as guaranteeing judicial independence, respecting the right to freedom of the press, and refraining from interfering in the enjoyment of these rights.
The situation is also precarious in Honduras. During the decade of the government of former president Juan Orlando Hernández and the National Party, the independent press was persecuted and several reporters were murdered. Currently, there are risks with the new administration of Xiomara Castro. Reporters Without Borders warned of the dismantling of protection mechanisms for the press.
Anti-democratic practices that seek to concentrate power and control access to information are spreading throughout Central America, including now Costa Rica, the most democratically developed country in the region. Costa Rica’s president, Rodrigo Chaves Robles, taking advantage of the power conferred by his position, is lashing out against the press that criticizes him.
Governments have rapidly and gradually escalated the harassment of the press: from verbal harassment, in press conferences or through hundreds of troll accounts on social networks, to permanent surveillance through state intelligence, direct threats, explicit criminal prosecutions, imprisonment, forced exile, and, particularly in the case of Honduras, assassinations. Just one piece of information serves to exemplify this: since 2018 some 120 Nicaraguan journalists have had to leave their country; entire newsrooms, such as that of La Prensa, the country’s most prestigious news outlet, now operate from exile due to their independence.
The voices of journalism
The levels of siege suffered by Central American journalism have surpassed the persecution suffered during periods of internal armed conflict. In recent years there have been more deaths of journalists, especially in Honduras. Óscar Martínez, editor-in-chief of the Salvadoran newspaper El Faro, tells the story. “The governments of Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are becoming less and less shy about presenting themselves in public as what they are: enemies of the independent press. We are the target,” Martinez wrote in a column in the Washington Post.
Along the same lines, other media outlets such as Prensa Comunitaria in Guatemala have pointed out that the ultimate intention of the attacks “is to generate terror in order to silence dissidence, criticism, citizen and press oversight, to impose corruption and impunity. That is what tyrants do. Because that is what Guatemala has become, a tyranny that uses state institutions to accumulate power and kill freedom,” says an editorial in the digital newspaper Prensa Comunitaria.
Fabián Medina, the editor of La Prensa de Nicaragua, who along with several members of the outlet’s editorial staff is currently living in exile in Costa Rica and exposes the reality of his country from there, assures that the rest of the region is now following a path of attacks on freedom of the press and freedom of expression that has been brewing in Nicaragua for years. Authoritarians, says Medina, begin by turning the independent press into an enemy of the State or of the “people”, which, due to the control that governments usually exercise over powerful propaganda machines, puts journalists in real danger. Then comes criminalization through criminal proceedings, generally spurious, as in Guatemala, and with this comes imprisonment.
In the most serious cases, at the end of this authoritarian path is its most violent expression: assassinations. In 2018, while covering mass protests against Daniel Ortega’s regime, journalist Ángel Gahona died after being shot. The family accuses Ortega-allied police of the shooting. In Nicaragua, however, murders of journalists have not been common in recent years, as was the case in Honduras during the entire term of former president Juan Orlando Hernández, now in prison in the United States on drug trafficking charges. According to the National Human Rights Commissioner of Honduras (CONADEH), 64 journalists were murdered between 2000 and 2017, most of them in the years when Hernández governed.
Below is a summary of the situation in the three Northern Triangle countries:
Between January and June 2022, the Press Freedom Observatory of the newspaper Prensa Comunitaria reported 96 attacks on journalists and media outlets. The most common violations are the restriction of access to sources of information and judicial harassment. The report also lists at least one murder this year.
A group of independent journalists critical of the Giammattei government and of politicians, officials, and businessmen who were involved in crimes and corruption cases investigated by the extinct International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), known in Guatemala as the corrupt pact, have had to move to other countries as a preventive measure.
Beyond Guatemala City, in the indigenous territories of the country, Mayan communicators have been subject to harassment and criminal prosecution for years. The cases of the Maya Q’eqchi’ journalists Carlos Choc, Baudilio Choc, and Juan Bautista Xol, whose homes were raided by the Guatemalan police after they covered police repression of indigenous communities opposed to the presence of mines and monocultures in their territories, stand out. The Public Prosecutor’s Office has opened two criminal proceedings against Carlos Choc and, although he was granted alternatives to detention, the risk of imprisonment is permanent for him.
The independent media outlet Plaza Pública, in an editorial written after Zamora’s arrest, warns that absolute control of the State and its oversight institutions is the ultimate motive for the harassment. To achieve this control, says this newspaper, is to “eliminate controls in the exercise of State power, dilute the division of powers, annul the checks and balances, eliminate all types of auditing. With this purpose, social organization is destroyed, the press is discredited and economically stifled”.
According to figures from the Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES), at least 9 Salvadoran journalists have been exiled due to harassment from President Nayib Bukele and his government. At least two of these journalists have initiated processes to request political asylum in other countries to safeguard their life, physical integrity and legal situation.
Since power in El Salvador is concentrated, the main actors harassing the independent press are President Bukele himself and his officials. So far, harassment and violations include stigmatization through social networks and the official propaganda apparatus, criminalization through state institutions, especially the Ministry of Finance to control media finances, and threats of criminal complaints in the Attorney General’s Office, also controlled by Bukele.
As of June 2019, before Bukele became president, attacks on the press were already registered, but most were attributed to gangs. A register of aggressions compiled by APES shows that attacks have increased since then. In 2018, the association’s monitoring center recorded 75 press violations; in 2021 there were 219 attacks on journalists, almost all attributed to the Bukele government and the president himself.
“Most of the attacks come from hate speech that the president publishes through his social networks. It is the Salvadoran state that most violates the rights of the press,” explains Angélica Cárcamo, president of APES.
In addition to the stigmatization on social networks, some Salvadoran journalists now live under the constant threat that Bukele’s prosecutor’s office will issue arrest warrants against them based on spurious cases. In the case of El Faro, one of the media outlets most critical of the presidential administration, the attacks have included “abusive audits” of the Ministry of Finance, as defined by Cárcamo, which, they suspect will be the basis for an eventual criminal charge. Journalists from El Faro and other media have also been subjected to illegal wiretapping and interception of their telephones.
Legal reforms approved by the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly have also affected the free practice of journalism, since they enable the Public Prosecutor’s Office, controlled by President Bukele, to criminally prosecute journalists who investigate and publicize activities of the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs, including their pact with the government.
According to Wendy Funes, director of the independent media Reporteros de Investigación, the change of government from Juan Orlando Hernández to Xiomara Castro has given a respite to the Honduran press. Nevertheless, threats and attacks continue. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 22 violent incidents against journalists and two murders were reported between January and July 2022.
Until Castro’s arrival, during the decade in which the National Party of Honduras ruled after the 2009 coup d’état, the situation of Honduran journalists was one of the most adverse in the region. Despite this, most of the attacks went unnoticed by the international community at the time.
According to journalist Funes, at least 21 Honduran communicators were murdered during the government of the National Party. Most of these crimes are attributed to organized crime, especially Honduran drug trafficking clans that were in coalition with the Hernández government – and with the president himself, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
In Hernandez’s Honduras, attacks on freedom of expression also included buying the will of journalists to favor the government’s narrative, harassment by gangs colluding with the government, and surveillance by police and state intelligence agencies.
In the month of August 2022 alone, the regime of Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, shut down some twenty radio stations and small local television channels, mostly Catholic and community-based, in the northern part of the country, in the departments of Leon and Matagalpa. This is in addition to a frontal offensive against the Nicaraguan press that escalated following the 2018 mass protests against the Ortega government.
In December 2018, the police intervened and raided the facilities of Confidencial, the independent digital newspaper run by Carlos Fernando Chamorro, son of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the former director of La Prensa newspaper who was assassinated in 1978 during the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. After Confidencial, it was La Prensa that was affected, whose entire editorial staff, like Carlos Fernando Chamorro, had to go into exile to avoid imprisonment by the regime. The Nicaraguan prosecutor’s office, controlled by Ortega and some officials sanctioned by the U.S. Government, has opened case files for alleged money laundering against several of these journalists and outlets.
Since 2018, at least 120 Nicaraguan journalists have had to go into exile according to a report by the organization Periodistas y Comunicadores Independientes de Nicaragua. “They take away the street, the possibility of being in contact with the sources that are essential to do journalism,” says Wilfredo Miranda Aburto, of the Divergentes media and contributor to El País of Spain.
The Inter-American Press Association has denounced that at least six journalists remain imprisoned in Ortega’s jails.
In its annual report for 2021, the Office of the Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), established that in Nicaragua “the regime has deployed a very sophisticated mechanism of censorship, which is physical, legal and symbolic”.
Some recommendations for the U.S. government and the international community:
Given the closure of internal spaces, the action of the international community is fundamental to protecting democracies in the region. Coordinated and complementary actions should be implemented between different governments and international organizations. Taking into account that part of the attacks has included financial asphyxiation, it is important that cooperation agencies support the opening of more lines of financing to support journalists and independent media that have been affected.
To the Government of the United States:
– Implement the Voices initiative announced at the ninth Summit of the Americas for the protection, defense, and promotion of civic space in Central America, with special emphasis on the protection of independent journalism.
– Advance the implementation of the Strategy on the Structural Causes of Migration, launched in July 2021, particularly pillar III on the promotion of press freedom to support independent media. This is indispensable so that citizens can access the necessary information from independent sources to make informed decisions and hold governments accountable.
– Develop secure mechanisms, beyond a whistleblower hotline, for journalists and others to contribute information from their investigations of corruption, organized crime, etc., to support the work being done by the Department of Justice through the Northern Triangle Anti-Corruption Task Force.
– Promote, together with other donors and governments, the creation of comprehensive protection programs for journalists at risk, including legal advice, protection of their physical integrity, access to financing, and mobilization expenses in case of exile, among others.
– Seek to expand the coordination of united and efficient multilateral actions to exercise international counterweights to governments bent on attacking journalists and freedom of the press in their countries.
To the Inter-American system for the protection of human rights:
– Open channels of communication so that, in cases of emergency, the press can transmit information on the situation of freedom of expression.
– Continue urging States to cease any persecution, attack, and harassment of the press and to create conditions for journalism to be exercised freely and fully.
– Promptly and effectively handle any case against Central American states related to freedom of the press, in order to establish international jurisprudence and for governments to take urgent measures to protect journalism, access to information, and democracy.
– In the cases that merit it, decree precautionary measures with celerity for the protection of the life and physical integrity of journalists and for the States to implement immediate protection for those at risk.
To the United Nations system:
– Facilitate the channels for denouncing violations of the right to freedom of expression and press.
– Continue monitoring the situation of the press in the region from its different agencies, especially from the Office of the Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, and recommend that the States implement urgent measures to put an end to harassment and persecution.
– Carry out periodic visits to verify the conditions in which journalism is practiced and promote the political commitment to respect and guarantee freedom of the press.