Numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. In February 2021, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures for me and 33 colleagues at El Faro because it considers our “rights to life and personal integrity at risk of suffering irreparable damage.” El Faro has extensively covered the El Mozote trial over the years, but the news site has also uncovered evidence of corruption in Bukele’s Cabinet and written about his secret negotiations with MS-13, a Salvadoran organized crime group. In its resolution calling for the Salvadoran government to protect the El Faro journalists, the commission cited several examples of the threats we have received, which included mentions of setting fire to our headquarters, using a car bomb against journalists from El Faro, and an anonymous threat from someone who wanted to “put three bullets” in my head after I clashed with Bukele at a press conference in May 2020.
After an El Faro employee reported inappropriate behavior by a colleague at a party to the news site’s management, a government-run media organization turned it into an unsubstantiated rape allegation. The alleged victim publicly denied that there had been any sexual assault or harassment and said her story had been manipulated to silence the press. El Faro has sued the publication, but several of my colleagues and I were summoned by the attorney general’s office to answer questions about it. The president has also said El Faro journalists are being investigated for money laundering, and the Finance Ministry has opened multiple audits of our publication. Recently, immigration officials denied a work permit for a colleague who is an American citizen and expelled an editor who is Mexican. We joke about going to prison, but it’s a very real possibility. My wife and I have prepared a list of things to do if I’m detained.
On social media, we’re commonly described with the terms favored by the president and government officials: “garbage,” “criminals,” “traffickers,” “mafioso,” “sewer of sold journalism,” “corrupt.”
The attacks on El Faro are broad. Earlier this year, Bukele went after a company that had bought an online advertisement from us. The unsubtle implication? Do business with El Faro and the government will punish you. Companies and the public are starting to take notice. When a bank denied me a loan, the executive told me that it was “because of my workplace.” Loida Avelar, a friend of mine, applied to rent a house, but the landlord turned her down after learning she worked as a journalist at an independent outlet.
While you read this, keep in mind: I’m privileged. Although I have to deal with the threats and danger brought by public tiffs with the president, I received a college education, I speak English, I have a job with full benefits, I don’t live in a gang-controlled community. That is not the case for hundreds of Salvadoran journalists and for millions of citizens who have to deal with this government and these hard realities.
For El Salvador, this is deja vu. Powerful elites have long used hate speech to silence critical voices and media. Raymond Bonner, the American journalist who uncovered the El Mozote massacre in 1982, went through a similar campaign of government harassment and attacks against his credibility. Granted, there was no internet to intensify the pressure, but it existed nonetheless.
El Salvador has a long history with authoritarian regimes. The advent of a military-dominated regime in the early 1980s led to a massive exodus to America. Now, it’s happening again. Almost 100,000 Salvadorans have been detained by U.S. Border Patrol in 2021. There are complex reasons driving this migration as my countrymen flee everything from gang violence to the devastating effects of climate change. But Bukele’s governing style has also had an impact. Carlos Dada, El Faro’s director, talks of “a silent exile” that affects all kinds of citizens, including journalists, lawyers and members of the political opposition.
We are still recovering from the wounds inflicted by a civil war that tore our country apart, and our democracy is again under threat. That’s why I am committed to telling the truth about our history and shedding light on the horrific events of three or four decades ago — even if the president doesn’t like it and has his eye on preventing journalists from disrupting his official narrative.
Nelson Rauda is a Salvadoran journalist who works for El Faro, Central America’s first online-only newsmagazine.