Salvadoran Newspaper Story on Government Negotiating with Gangs Prompts Threats, Controversy

by Knight Center for Journalism    /  March 23, 2012  / No comments

A photograph taken by Cristian Poveda, who was killed by gang members in 2009. Last week, in a press conference where he talked about the story on government negotiating with gangs published by the website El Faro, the Minister of Security reminded Salvadoran journalists about Poveda's death. The reminder has been seen as a threat by some media outlets.

An article published Wednesday, March 14, in the digital newspaper El Faro of El Salvador has stirred up a firestorm of controversy and threats against the newspaper and its reporters, prompting journalists and free press organizations around the world to express concern and show solidarity with their Central American colleagues.

In the article, El Faro reported that the government was doing business with local gangs, negotiating a sort-of truce in which gang leaders would receive certain benefits — such as prisoners being transferred to nicer facilities or in some cases money — in exchange for a decrease in violence. According to the article, just days after the alleged pact, only three murders were registered in the country, down from a daily average of 14.

Since publication of the article, journalists at El Faro have been on alert. “Intelligence sources have told us they believe El Faro‘s risk level has greatly increased,” said editor and founder Carlos Dada in an email alert he sent out the morning of Friday, March 16, as published by El País.

“The Minister of Security has stated that we are at risk,” Dada told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. “If he knows where the threats come from, he should also know how to protect us from those dangers, but so far we have not received any offer to protect us in any way. We have also told him that since he ordered some changes at the police and the intelligence agency we have been followed, harassed and photographed by state agents.”

The alert went on to say that the government, which denied negotiating with gangs to reduce the murder rate, had called together various media outlets — excluding El Faro — to tell them that El Faro was taking a huge risk by publishing such a story. The Minister of Security also reminded those journalists at the meeting of what happened to Cristian Poveda, a photojournalist and documentarian killed by gang members in 2009.

“What worries me is that the authorities are already blaming the gangs for anything that may happen to us” – Carlos Dada, editor of digital newspaper El Faro

“What worries me is that the authorities are already blaming the gangs for anything that may happen to us,” Dada told the Knight Center. “It just doesn’t make sense, especially since we have not been offered any protection. What is the role of the security authorities? (To) let us know that a very powerful and violent group is after us? It would make a much more difficult environment for threats if most of the other media questioned the official statements. We are not asking the other media to follow our stories, but at least to remember what our role is when facing power. Curiously enough, most of them published the minister’s version, but very few called us to get better information about our investigation. It is hard to believe.”

In an editorial published Monday, March 19, El Faro explained how it cultivated sources and verified information in order to produce the article, adding that the press’s job is to serve as a watchdog, questioning the official versions told by those in power. The editorial also thanked the newspaper’s “readers and friends” for their support in recent days.

For example, Omar Rábago Vital of the freedom of expression group Article 19 tweeted about El Faro‘s situation, and the digital newspaper Plaza Pública from neighboring Guatemala posted Dada’s email alert on its Facebook page.

This Storify from El Faro includes various reaction tweets.

This article was originally published by the Knight Center for Journalism on March 19, 2012. It is reprinted with permission.

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