“El Faro” of El Salvador Denounces Bukele’s Harassment

Jose Luis Sanz, director of the digital newspaper “El Faro”. Photo: Victor Pena / copied from elfaro.net

“What the President says is false,” declares the director of “El Faro”. He warns that the attacks perpetrated by Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele could extend to illegal arrests.

By EFE (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Jose Luis Sanz runs the Salvadoran investigative newspaper El Faro. In an interview with the EFE news agency, he expressed serious concerns about the intentions of Nayib Bukele’s government. Sanz fears they plan to detain the newspaper’s Board and thus paralyze the site’s functioning. This, Sanz feels, is in reprisal for El Faro’s investigative reporting.

Sanz also warned of Bukele’s desire to consolidate his political power and silence critical media. If he should succeed, Sanz feels, it would be “very optimistic” to think that journalists wouldn’t be at risk.

These declarations come at moments when diverse sectors of the El Salvador are clamoring for actions to protect press freedom. Numerous international organizations have also raised their voices.

Below are excerpts from the interview with Sanz.

“El Faro” has denounced that it’s suffering persecution from Nayib Bukele’s government. When did you become aware of these attacks?

The current administration has spearheaded a confrontation with journalism, especially with the investigative media. This began even before they came to power.

It has evolved and grown in seriousness, with ever more pressure.

The state-run news site La Pagina launched an aggressive campaign in July to discredit and slander El Faro and its reporters. They accused one of our reporters of engaging in sexual abuse, and its directors of having covered it up.

Just two days later, the [supposedly victimized] reporter issued a public statement, exposing the lies of La Pagina. Nonetheless, the Finance Ministry initiatedan audit of us.

From the beginning, we felt the audit wasn’t really aimed at confirming that we paid our taxes, which we did. Or whether we declared our income, which we declared. Rather, it was trying to uncover some other type of information. We suspected it was part of an effort to construct some kind of story that went against the newspaper.

For that reason, we’ve appealed before the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court. We believe what’s occurring is what the attorneys call a deviation of power. That is, a legitimate tool of the State being used for an end that’s different from what is stated.

On September 24, the president stated on national television that El Faro is under investigation for money laundering. Neither the Finance Ministry nor the Public Prosecutor’s office notified us of this.

The President announcing publicly that we’re being investigated for money laundering is something we see as a clear threat.

For some weeks before this, we were receiving warnings that they planned to issue detention orders. If the Public Prosecutor allowed, these were to be issued against some of the directors,  myself, Carlos Dada (founder), and others. They even contemplated freezing our bank accounts.

Neither the Prosecutor nor the Finance Ministry have notified you of such an investigation?

We’ve received no formal notification, beyond the fact that the president announced on national television that we were under investigation.

What the president has said about us is false. He says we are hiding the source of our funds. The only information we’ve refused to turn over to them are the names of our subscribers.

We fear that if we turn this information over to Finance, it could be used to attack our subscribers.

What other legal actions will you be taking to protect yourselves?

The first action is to comply rigorously with the audit, contrary to what the President says. (…) We’re also trying to make sure the audit adheres to information really relevant to the supposed goals of an audit.

The second action is to recur to superior institutions, to assure compliance with the law. (..) We’re also weighing an appeal to international legal organizations.

In a post the day after the national television announcement, you refer to a tweet from a candidate for deputy. In the tweet, this representative of the official party said that he wanted to see you arrested. Does this arouse still more suspicion?

The president has been accusing us of lying for a long time. This was especially true after we revealed the negotiations between the Government and the Mara Salvatrucha gang to reduce the homicides.

Before things happen, there’s a lot of intense work to construct a narrative. Concretely, the Finance Minister (Alejandro Zelaya) has participated in this.

There was a tweet from a candidate in the official party who was running for deputy. It said that we uncomfortable journalists were going to end up in an uncomfortable cell. He was playing with words, but in practice said we would be arrested for being rapists or money launderers.

The Finance Minister who was auditing us retweeted that message.

For the Minister in charge of our investigation to propagate such a message without any reason feeds our suspicion.  Saying we’re going to go to jail for money laundering makes us think that they’re really not seeking the truth.

One line of criticism that the government has used against you is your relationship with a businessman named Siman. Do you actually receive direction from this businessman?

Nayib Bukele constructs narratives based on fallacy and myth. For over a year and a half, he’s insisted that independent media such as El Faro and Factum receive dark money.

One of the founders of El Faro is Jorge Siman.  That’s no secret, it’s on our web page. (..) He created this newspaper from nothing, together with journalist Carlos Dada. He made small contributions during the time when none of us El Faro journalists received a salary.

What happens is that Nayib Bukele plays with disinformation. I believe that he’s the principal agent of disinformation in the country. When he speaks of Siman, he’s not referring to Jorge Siman, he’s talking about Javier Siman. Javier Siman was a pre-candidate to the presidency for the rightist party ARENA. To Bukele, he symbolizes a kind of dark agent. This agent supposedly has unlimited economic capacity and moves the strings of national politics and the media.

Along that same narrative line, he claims that Javier Siman is behind El Faro. That’s false, completely false.

What do you think is the government’s overall objective in this?

The President understands democracy as simply a tool for electing political leadership. He doesn’t really have democratic values. He dreams of a government that has absolute dominion. He wants to dominate not only the institutions, but the narrative, the conversation in the country.

Nayib Bukele believes that anybody who challenges his narrative, as we do in the media, is attacking him. He then reacts violently. Normally with verbal violence, but now with the institutional violence that we’re seeing.

The investigative pieces published in different media outlets make President Bukele nervous. El Faro, Gato Encerrado, Salud con Lupa, Factum and even the mainstream Diario de Hoy – have all published such investigations. These have revealed presumed cases of corruption.

The plans of Nayib Bukele’s government aren’t known. The only thing we do know is that they aim to control the legislative power after the February 2021 elections. They don’t want anybody, including us, the most incisive media outlet, questioning their affirmations and challenging their narrative.

Do you think they’re on the road to attacking the freedom of the press in El Salvador like they have in Venezuela and Nicaragua?

I believe events like in Nicaragua are possibly on the horizon, given what’s happening in the country with dizzying swiftness.

If he consolidates his power in the elections, and succeeds in silencing the independent media, that could happen. (…) Our democracy would be in his hands. The signals he’s given in this first year of the government make it clear that they’re not trustworthy hands.

This government is a government that feels comfortable in the shadows. It feels very comfortable having a public discourse without being questioned.

Are you afraid for your physical and personal integrity?

At this time, we fear that some of us could be illegally detained. Such detentions could have the appearance of legality. However, they would be based on unfounded accusations, legitimized only by the executive. We hope not, but it could happen, with the tolerance of the Attorney General’s office.

If this Administration’s consolidates their political control, their domination, their hegemony over public debate and the institutions, then we are fearful. If that should happen, I believe it would be overly optimistic to think that (…) we journalists would not be at risk.

Read more interviews in Havana Times