The article was damning. A female employee at “El Faro,” El Salvador’s preeminent investigative news outlet, had been sexually assaulted by a colleague during a drug-fueled work party, the tabloid La Página proclaimed. El Salvador’s president quickly weighed in on Twitter, calling for the attorney general to open a criminal investigation into the publication, one of the most heralded in Latin America.
Except the alleged victim had never talked to the tabloid. Her story had been manipulated, she wrote in a statement in July, to serve “a political campaign that seeks to harm journalists and people who make the government uncomfortable because of their watchdog work.”
The incident underscores the threatening environment for the media in El Salvador a little over a year after President Nayib Bukele took office. The 39-year-old populist cuts a millennial figure, with his penchant for leather jackets, backwards baseball caps, and 90s hip-hop. But his hipster image belies what journalists and press advocates say is his autocratic tendency to retaliate against anyone who questions him or his policies.
Salvadoran journalists who have written critically about Bukele face criminal investigations into their work and personal life, are banned from presidential press conferences, and are regularly attacked by the president and top government officials on Twitter, inciting a wave of violent messages and sexualized threats against them.
Journalists have filed three times as many reports about threatening behavior toward them in Bukele’s first year as president as they did during the last year of his predecessor’s term, according to the National Association of Journalists in El Salvador (APES).
On Twitter, Bukele and officials in his administration have referred to reporters as “trash,” “sell-out mercenaries” and “garbage.”
“Bukele wants the press to stop questioning him. This is a coordinated effort to completely control the conversation and public debate in El Salvador,” said José Luis Sanz, director of El Faro.
The dynamic is raising eyebrows in Washington, especially amongst Democrats, who are less forgiving of attacks on the press than Bukele’s followers back home. The U.S is a key ally for Bukele, and the State Department has sent at least $411 million since 2016 to the Central American country in aid, according to the Congressional Research Service.
In a letter to Bukele on September 10, a group of House and Senate Democrats expressed their “deep concern regarding your government’s increased hostility toward independent and investigative media outlets in El Salvador.”
The State Department also weighed in. “Journalists do critically important jobs in a democracy and their independence must be respected,” Michael Kozak, acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, wrote on Twitter.
Bukele’s government did not grant repeated requests for an interview from VICE News.
Just hours after Kozak’s tweet, Bukele mocked a German media outlet for reporting that El Salvador’s transparency institute had rejected his proposal to restrict freedom of information laws.
The next day, Bukele condemned the country’s National Association of Journalists, saying on Twitter, “They can criticize, attack, slander and receive money (among others) for doing so. They want freedom of expression to be just for them.”
Latin America’s youngest president and former mayor of San Salvador, Bukele swept into office in 2019 as a third-party candidate on an anti-corruption platform. He professes to have no political ideology, and has cozied up to President Donald Trump by promising to curb illegal immigration to the U.S. and to crack down on the MS-13 gang. The two leaders also share an obsession with Twitter, and little tolerance for dissent.
In September 2019, shortly after taking office, Bukele’s press team denied entry to journalists from investigative publications El Faro and Factum into a press conference about a new international effort to fight corruption. The president’s spokesperson attributed the prohibition to the journalists’ “bad behavior” in prior press conferences — an apparent reference to their yelling out questions.
El Diario de Hoy, one of El Salvador’s most read newspapers, ran a front-page story about the incident. It quickly faced repercussions.
The next day, Bukele’s government pulled advertising from the paper, said the paper’s political editor, Ricardo Avelar. Bukele’s administration also cancelled a $2.5 million contract with a sister company to print school books.
“It’s retaliation. A way to express the government’s discomfort with an independent editorial line and also a way to pressure media outlets,” Avelar said. “Bukele’s narrative is that he represents the future. And everyone who is critical of him represents the past — corruption and abuse of power.”
Bukele has turned to a handful of trusted news outlets to spread his message, including the online tabloid La Página. Owned by a businessman facing money laundering charges, the outlet is now managed by the government. It’s often the source of dubious stories that undermine the credibility of Bukele’s critics.
For example, La Página reported in September that the attorney general’s office had opened an investigation into journalist Héctor Silva Ávalos for alleged money laundering. Bukele tweeted the story, attacked Silva as a “paid pen,” and accused other journalists of preparing a “smokescreen” to defend him.
The outburst came on the heels of Silva’s investigative report that the new president had, as mayor, received millions of dollars from a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, which has since been sanctioned by the U.S Treasury Department. The report raised concerns about corruption, and threatened Bukele’s standing with U.S. officials. Bukele admitted receiving the money but argued that at the time that he did, the group had yet to be sanctioned.
Silva, founder of the investigative magazine Factum and an investigator on organized crime for the think tank InSight Crime, said the attorney general’s office refused to say whether it was, in fact, investigating him for money laundering. He told the Committee to Protect Journalists that La Página’s article was a pattern of “political harassment.”
La Pagina didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In July, La Página also reported on the 2017 sexual assault allegation against El Faro. In response, El Faro acknowledged the outlines of the story — that a reporter had acted “inappropriately” toward a female colleague during a work party at a lake house, there had been an “administrative response” to this and other complaints of sexual harassment within the publication, and new policies put in place to stop them. But El Faro, and the alleged victim, denied a sexual assault had taken place. Still, the attorney general’s office has opened a criminal investigation based on La Página’s story, despite protest from the alleged victim.
In addition, El Faro is facing an audit from the Finance Ministry — a perhaps unsurprising turn of events as Bukele has accused it of receiving “dark money.”
El Faro has described it as a witch hunt. Sanz, the publication’s director, says the Finance Ministry is seeking the minutes from the publication’s board of director meetings, update reports El Faro sends its partners about journalistic projects, and the identities of its individual donors.
“What right or interest could the Finance Ministry have in obtaining the progress reports on our journalistic investigations?” Sanz said. “It would give them access to internal discussions about stories. That clearly exceeds the normal scope of an audit.”
The publication receives about 25% of its money from the Open Society Foundations, which is funded by leftist billionaire George Soros, Sanz said. The rest comes from other foundations, advertising, and readers.
El Faro has frequently angered Bukele. Most recently, the outlet reported that his administration had offered favors to leaders of the gang MS-13 in return for curbing homicides. The story contradicted Bukele’s narrative that tough-on-crime measures were behind the decline. In a tweet storm, Bukele denied the allegations and said gang members had suffered under his leadership.
Bukele remains extremely popular in El Salvador, driven by a mixture of disaffection with the two establishment parties and declining violence. His critics say he is testing the boundaries of authoritarianism, both in his treatment of the media and opponents within government.
In February, Bukele ordered heavily armed soldiers and police to enter Congress in an effort to pressure the legislature to approve a $109 million foreign loan for police vehicles, video surveillance equipment, and other security gear.
After closing the country’s borders early on during the pandemic, he ordered the military to arrest anybody violating strict stay-at-home measures. Those who did were sent to “quarantine centers.” The country’s Supreme Court said the measures were illegal. Bukele refused to stop.
For journalists, the online attacks against them haven’t led to violence. Yet. But they fear that’s where things may be going, as government officials condemn reporters in increasingly personal terms.
In August, journalist Jorge Beltrán of El Diario de Hoy reported that the port authority had spent $88,000 to remodel an office. The agency’s director, Federico, Aniker, López, an ally of Bukele who previously served as Secretary General of his political party Nuevas Ideas, quickly shot back on Twitter.
“They treat you like garbage and it’s well deserved. Unlike where you work, I care about my colleagues. Continue in your pigsty. It’s well earned,” he wrote.
That tweet led to a flood of hate messages, Beltrán said, many of them images showing him being raped.
“The government officials refuse to answer our questions. And then they rouse their followers on Twitter saying this journalist is corrupt and he’s just telling another lie,” Beltrán said. “Many journalists are scared that these virtual attacks will lead to physical assaults.”
Bukele’s message is clear: stop criticizing him or suffer the consequences, said Claudia Ramirez, chief information officer at La Prensa Grafica, the country’s largest newspaper.
“I have never seen this level of aggression from a president as I do right now,” she said. “Bukele wants to have control of everything.”
Cover: Nayib Bukele speaks to the media during a conference in Washington D.C, when he was El Salvador’s president-elect in May 2019. Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images.