In El Salvador, a beacon of truth under threat

October 8, 2020
President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador (left) with Donald Trump in 2019. Evan Vucci/AP Photo

In the midst of a global pandemic, a contested election, a coronavirus outbreak in the White House, and a general feeling of insanity, it’s not easy to get Americans to focus on global events—much less those in a tiny Central American country that, so far, has not been a campaign issue.

But what is happening in El Salvador is profoundly relevant to understanding ways in which the attacks on our global information systems contribute to the erosion of democracy around the world.It’s a terrible trend which the Trump administration’s policies and actions have accelerated.

El Salvador, a tiny sliver of a country with a history of violence, is also home to one of the world’s leading digital news organizations. It’s called El Faro, or The Lighthouse, and for more than 20 years it has provided not only day-to-day coverage of events in Central America, but also deep investigations into corruption, human-rights abuses, and gang violence. El Faro’s editor, Óscar Martínez, has written best-selling books on migration (The Beast) and murder (A History of Violence). El Faro has an innovative financing model that has allowed it to survive and thrive, with a current staff of 35. It receives revenue from ads, reader donations, events, and grants from international foundations.

The primary target of El Faro’s investigations are members of El Salvador’s political class. From 1980 to 1992, El Salvador was wracked by a civil war, fought between a coalition of Marxist guerilla organizations and government security forces, backed by a rapacious oligarchy. In the past two decades, Salvadoran politics have become less violent, but not less polarized. The country’s leading political parties are heirs to the warring factions.

Then along came Nayib Bukele.

Bukele, the former mayor of San Salvador, the country’s capital and largest city, broke the mold. He has an immigrant background, speaks immaculate English, and dresses like a New York hipster. (No ties, please!) After he split with the leftist FMLN party, which had accused him of corruption, he ran for president as a reformer who had moved beyond ideology and labels. He ran an impressive campaign on social media, promising Salvadorans he would turn the page on the post-war era. Since being elected in 2019, he has retained significant popular support, and become a darling of the international media, featured in a glowing profile on 60 Minutes.

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But El Faro, through its coverage, has chipped away at Bukele’s carefully crafted image. It reported his alleged corruption, his mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, his growing authoritarianism, and a secret truce with the  leaders of the MS-13 gang  in which the president promised more lenient prison conditions if the gangs would temper  their violence and support for his political project. Critics called it a deal with the devil. 

Bukele, angered by El Faro’s coverage, lashed out, using his Twitter account as a cudgel. As usual, the president’s attacks were amplified by his followers on social media. Bukele first accused an El Faro editor of sexually harassing an employee (the alleged victim denied it) and when that failed to intimidate El Faro, he announced an investigation for money laundering linked to El Faro’s donors.

In the showdown between El Faro and Bukele, the Trump administration has taken the president’s side. Bukele has cultivated close ties with US Ambassador Douglas Johnson, formerly of the CIA, and earlier this year posted a photo of their families on a cruise together off the Salvadoran coast.

Bukele, like other leaders in Latin America and around the world, has understood that the key to managing Trump is never to contradict him publicly, and to throw him a few bones linked to a particular political obsession—in this case, stemming the flow of Salvadoran migrants to the US. When Bukele met with Trump at the United Nations last September, he pledged to do just that, while also calling Trump “nice and cool” and noting their joint obsession with Twitter.

In fact, Trump has used his Twitter feed, and an unthinking US media which chases it around, to dehumanize Salvadorans and define the country as the place that is seeding the United States with violent criminals. Trump said, conspiratorially, that members of the binational street gang MS-13 were ravaging American cities. They were coming here as part of caravans, the president alleged, marching through Mexico, and they needed to be shut down.

While Bukele left Trump’s smears and lies unchallenged, El Faro has exposed them, not just in El Salvador, but through its cooperation, both direct and indirect, with international media organizations, including The New York Times. A joint investigation published in 2016 demonstrated that the gangs were a profoundly destabilizing force in El Salvador, but hardly a geopolitical threat. El Faro has also published joint projects with Univision, in the US, and El País in Spain, while shaping global perceptions and understanding through its daily coverage.

El Faro is part of a global network of independent media that are under increasing threat. Many receive significant funding from US-based based foundations. The best known example is the Philippine outlet Rappler, whose editor, Maria Ressa, is facing a legal assault that could send her to jail for years. Times media columnist Ben Smith called this new breed of independent reporter “pound for pound, the most impressive journalists in the world,” a moniker that would certainly apply to Martínez and the El Faro staff. The extent to which our entire global ecosystem relies on these islands of journalistic exceptionalism cannot be overstated.

In normal times, serious US officials would recognize what’s at stake and stand up to defend El Faro, along with the other Salvadoran media outlets that have come under attack. There is, of course, no chance of that happening as long as Trump remains in power.

If Joe Biden is elected president he will have a chance to reverse this profoundly destructive policy and restore US leadership. Biden should announce that, as part of a global strategy to bolster democracy, accountability, and the free circulation of information and ideas around the world, he will support press freedom and back independent news organizations like El Faro. 

Perhaps the prospect of a Biden victory and shift in US policy will temper Bukele’s worst instincts and his obsequious behavior towards Trump. In the meantime, all those who care about press freedom, independent journalism, the truth, and democracy should stand firmly with El Faro. 

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Joel Simon is a fellow at Tow Center for Digital Journalism. His next book is The Infodemic: How Censorship Made the World Sicker and Less Free co-authored with Robert Mahoney.