Violence shook El Salvador’s streets yet again in late March. With 87 random murders, the country’s gangs sent a message to the administration of President Nayib Bukele in response to what they saw as a betrayal. As investigative journalists revealed, the murders took place after the capture of several gang members who had been traveling in a government vehicle and guaranteed safe passage. Since Bukele’s election as president in 2019, gang leaders have been invited to secret meetings which resulted in agreements to lower the incidents of crime in the Central American nation.
The story was first published in the digital journal El Faro (The Beacon), one of the oldest in El Salvador and in Latin America. One of its reporters, Carlos Martínez, filed the account from outside the country — not only because that was where he met with his sources, but also because, by including voices of gang members, he risked 15 years’ imprisonment under emergency laws imposed by the government in early April.
Like Martínez, thousands of journalists in several countries of Latin America have discovered that, sometimes overnight, doing their work well has become illegal. This has happened in Nicaragua under the regime of Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, and previously in Venezuela with Nicolás Maduro. Another example is Ecuador, which is slowly emerging from limitations imposed during the 10-year administration of Rafael Correa, who characterized the press as an enemy and discredited its investigative work. At the time, Ecuador was considered one of the most repressive governments on the continent because of the disproportionate sanctions imposed by Supercom, the country’s media regulator, and its effectiveness in generating fear and censorship.
“This new law is the culmination of a whole process to the detriment of democracy,” said Óscar Martínez, editor in chief of El Faro, in a recent Twitter Space. The new measures give the government more latitude to make use of pretrial detentions and counterterrorism laws as well as drastically curtail freedom of expression. In the same conversation, César Batiz, director of El Pitazo in Venezuela, said that the goal of power is to create “information deserts,” instead of creating informed citizens as journalism seeks to do.
In Nicaragua, the implementation of three distinct laws at the end of 2020 has resulted in fear among sources, the squeezing of mass media financing, and an atmosphere of intimidation and persecution. One of these laws penalizes those who leak. The second penalizes those who disseminate information the government considers false. The third punishes people who receive money from foreign sources without reporting it and categorizes those who receive any kind of financial support from abroad as foreign agents.
For example, as part of a state investigation into the supposed crime of money laundering involving the Ortegas’ main political opponent, 60 journalists were interrogated by the prosecutor’s office and were forced to explain their professional relationship with the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, an organization recognized for promoting freedom of expression since 1998. Some of these journalists, who received modest sums for consulting with the organization, were investigated for money laundering.
In Venezuela, the Law Against Hatred was passed in Nov. 2017 and has been used by the government to quash dissent. The measure “mandates punishment and prison terms of up to 20 years for anyone who instigates hate or violence on the radio, television, in print or via social media,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Numerous journalists have been harassed under this law. One high-profile case is Roberto Deniz, an editor with investigative website Armando.Info, who was accused of “inciting hatred.” His parents’ home was also searched by police in October.
In Cuba, although the constitution states that freedom of thought, conscience, and expression are guaranteed, that’s never really been the case. Recent decrees have also contradicted this principle. In August of 2021, the government instituted its own fake news measures, essentially prohibiting the dissemination of what officials deem to be false or harmful information online. Under the new regulations, the government can also force tech companies to shut down the accounts of people accused of spreading “misinformation” on social media or other platforms. José Jasán Nieves, general editor of the Cuban website El Toque, said that all journalism not controlled by the state is considered hostile and illegal.
Faced with the lack of guarantees protecting journalistic work, the only way reporters have been able to remain at liberty and continue to disseminate information is by leaving their countries and taking their families with them. “We have returned to a journalism of the catacombs,” says the Nicaraguan journalist Octavio Enríquez, in a panel about how to carry out reporting in contexts ever more difficult for democracy. The phrase refers to the late the 1970s, during the era of the Somoza dictatorship, when reporters worked from the courtyards of churches to avoid censorship. Enríquez now reports from Costa Rica.
In this challenging landscape, journalistic alliances have emerged as a way to elude this “new legality” that persecutes free and independent reporting. “It makes no sense to compete when you are facing an adversary so strong that it has no scruples about using all the tools to censor your voice,” Nieves says.
This was part of our mission in forming CONNECTAS, a nonprofit organization that “promotes the production, exchange, training, and dissemination of information on key issues for the development of the Americas.” In a series of investigations under the title “Nicaragua No Calla” (Nicaragua Will Not Be Silent), we brought together 20 journalists from the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina, and of course Nicaragua to expose the institutional deterioration of the nation and its democracy. The result was several stories detailing Ortega’s rise to power, how his shadow adviser — Néstor Moncada Lau — controls the local security agencies, and how police officers can get away with massacring a family.
“A great help and support for continuing to do journalism in these conditions has been ceasing to see each other within the media as competitors,” says Jessica Ávalos, editor in chief of Factum Magazine in El Salvador. “Now there are alliances of traditional and independent media, which was not the case before.”
In 10 years, CONNECTAS has created a large regional editorship that brings together more than 130 journalists in 19 countries. This has allowed us in ever-more-closed societies to continue to work and amplify the impact of our reporting because it is often republished in multiple media outlets across the region.
“Alliances help to coordinate broader and deeper investigations,” says Nelson Bocaranda, general manager and editor in chief of the Venezuelan website Runrun.es. “They are our way around geographic and digital barriers that persecution often imposes . . . I think it was only through uniting that we succeeded in breaking through censorship.” Runrun.es has joined with El Pitazo and Tal Cual of the Alianza Rebelde Investiga, under the umbrella of CONNECTAS, for several high-impact investigations that also reach across borders like their story Chavismo Inc., a detailed look into how millions of petrodollars were siphoned out of Venezuela to line the pockets of a small cohort of individuals around the globe.
The word “resist” has grown ever more common in the vocabulary of colleagues in Latin American countries. But so has the word “solidarity,” which encourages cooperation rising out of the conviction that silence is not an option. Even when imposed by law.
Carlos Eduardo Huertas, NF ’12, leads the editorial board of CONNECTAS, a platform for cooperation among journalists that investigates abuses of power and promotes the exchange of information on key issues for the development of the Americas.
Reporting at Risk
From Kashmir to Russia to Mexico and beyond, journalism is under threat. Reporters Without Borders estimates that nearly three-quarters of the 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index either completely or partially block the work of newsrooms. The threats to journalists are physical, political and, especially under authoritarian regimes, increasingly existential. In our Reporting at Risk series Nieman Reports is publishing essays by journalists who are managing to do vital independent reporting — often at great personal risk.