Press Freedom Threatened Under Bukele in El Salvador

Dec 10, 2021
4:33 PM

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele (AP Photo/Salvador Meléndez, File)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On November 23, Apple sent 14 El Faro journalists a warning: “state-sponsored attackers may be targeting your iPhone” because of “who you are and what you do.”

El Faro, a top independent newsroom in El Salvador that also contributes to Latino Rebels, broke the story in English and Spanish. Readers came forward. They had been warned by Apple, too.

Image via El Faro

Christian Guevara, an ally to El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele, tweeted that government officials were being targeted by “cyber warfare,” as well, implying foreign interference was to blame.

“I don’t think Mexico or the United States wants to spy on me,” said an El Faro colleague in a phone interview this week with Latino Rebels, refuting Guevara’s claim. Multiple El Faro journalists told Latino Rebels that they believe the state-sponsored surveillance Apple warned them about last month was coming from El Salvador’s government.

“They especially don’t like when we cover the relationship between the government and the gangs,” said the colleague at El Faro who had to quit social media for a time after a recent series of reports on the topic came with cascades of death and rape threats online.

In November, Guevara proposed a 40% tax on journalism grants from abroad and require journalists at newsrooms in El Salvador that receive international funding to register as foreign agents. “Se les acabaron sus sueldos, sus jugosos salarios,” Guevara said on national televisión two weeks before Apple’s warning to El Faro journalists. “Their salaries are no more, their juicy salaries.”

El Salvador’s legislative assembly paused a vote on the controversial foreign agent law after Germany’s ambassador to El Salvador threatened nearly $1 million in relief for seven municipalities in La Libertad and La Unión.

That same day, November 23, when Apple warned El Faro journalists of state-sponsored threat in their iPhones, the California-based tech giant sued NSO Group, an Israeli firm that “sells software to government agencies and law enforcement that enables them to hack iPhones and read the data on them, including messages and other communications,” according to reporting by CNBC.

Bukele, 40, is El Salvador’s president. After being lauded internationally during the early weeks of the pandemic for working across society to stop the spreading virus, Bukele has fallen out of favor in Washington, D.C.

“Bukele has totally turned from what he presented himself to be here in Washington, to what he has become,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Menendez (D-NJ) in a hallway interview Tuesday with Latino Rebels, “which is an increasingly authoritarian figure, and his attacks on the freedom of the press in El Salvador is one of the hallmarks of his authoritarianism and the road on which he’s on.”

Asked if they lived in fear over their journalism work, a colleague at El Faro didn’t waffle: “Más o menos, especially when covering the relationship between gangs and the government because you never know what’s going to happen if they find you on your doorstep.”

On Friday, El Faro reported another story about a secret agreement between the Bukele government and MS-13.


Pablo Manríquez is the Washington correspondent for Latino Rebels. Twitter: @PabloReports