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Journalists are on the Front Line of Central America’s Fight for Democracy

Threats and attacks against the press in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have been steadily escalating. Jenny Villatoro, Associate of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative, argues journalists must remain resolute in their work and committed to preserving their democracy.

Article by Jenny Villatoro March 22, 2022 //   5 minute read
Journalists gathered in Mexico to demand that the authorities clarify the murders of journalists. (Dany Bejar photography/Shutterstock)

Imagine their shock when staffers from the Salvadoran news outlet, El Faro, received this warning on their phone, “ALERT: State-sponsored attackers may be targeting your iPhone.” That same day, Apple filed a suit against the maker of the spyware used in the attack.

Corrupt actors often target democratic institutions such as a free press because journalists are bulwarks against corruption and authoritarianism. Weak institutions create an environment where corruption thrives. Shining a light on this corruption is necessary to root it out but can be dangerous work. In this way, journalists are on the front lines of Central America’s fight to hold onto their democracy.

Threats and attacks against the press in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have been steadily escalating. This includes retaliatory actions, targeted legislative threats, invasive financial audits, vehicle surveillance of journalists, cyber-attacks, and lack of investigations into murdered journalists.

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These attacks can cause journalists and other civil society actors to self-censor. They also can cause their sources to stop working with them (both publicly and privately), creating “silence zones,” where fear results in very little coverage of crime or corruption.

The threats and attacks add to the narrative that the press (and democratic institutions in general) is the “enemy.” That charge only further weakens democratic rule of law. Unfortunately we don’t need to look far to see what a worse-case-scenario looks like: As of March 21, eight journalists have been murdered this year alone in Mexico, the deadliest country for journalists outside of a war zone. 

Journalists and news outlets in El Salvador have faced social media attacks by political figures and invasive financial investigations -- seemingly in retaliation for their investigative reporting on corruption within the government and dealings with gangs. Journalists and civil society organizations in El Salvador are under threat by a proposed law that would charge them a 40% tax on every financial transaction, effectively taxing them out of existence. In February 2021 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted precautionary measures in favor of 34 workers at El Faro deemed to be, “at serious, urgent risk of suffering irreparable harm to their human rights.” Independent investigations later revealed the phones of at least 35 Salvadoran journalists and civil society members were infected with NSO’s Pegasus Spyware, the subject of Apple’s suit.

Against all this, journalists in Central America have remained resolute in their work and committed to preserving their democracy.

Attacks against the press in El Salvador have been condemned by several human rights organizations. The list includes Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, the OAS Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), the Due Process of Law Foundation, and the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

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In Guatemala, the press has been targeted with false accusations, barred from accessing what is supposed to be public information, harassed, detained and beaten by police. The Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Journalists is grossly under-resourced, targeted by surveillance campaigns, and the killing of two journalists has also gone largely uninvestigated. In November, journalists marched in protest of these attacks in the capital, Guatemala City, to demand a stop to these systemic attacks. 

Honduras continues to be one of the deadliest countries for journalists in the Western Hemisphere, with 93 violent attacks against journalists reported last year alone. In addition to threats and physical attacks, journalists in Honduras are under legislative threat as well – with the Honduran legislature looking to designate journalists as “politically exposed persons.”

Against all this, journalists in Central America have remained resolute in their work and committed to preserving their democracy. Their governments should be equally resolute in their support and protection of the freedom of expression and a free press. With recent announcements of $1.2 billion in investments in Central America, the United States and U.S.-based companies should also encourage their partners and local actors to respect these democratic institutions. These investments either risk being lost to corruption under the cover of silence and impunity or will have the chance to thrive in strong democracies.

The United States and our Central American neighbors have many ties: We’re their largest trading partner and we’re home to many of their diaspora. Our attention to Central America should not wax and wane with migration trends or start and stop with trade priorities. We should recognize in the Western Hemisphere what we recognize at home – the safer and more secure our neighbors, the safer and more secure the neighborhood. We cannot wait until we’re the only democracy left to care.