El Salvador threatens prison for media sharing gang messages

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — El Salvador’s congress, pushing further in the government’s dramatic crackdown on gangs, has authorized prison sentences of 10 to 15 years for news media that reproduce or disseminate messages from the gangs, alarming press freedom groups. The vote on Tuesday night was just the latest of a series of legislative actions against gangs following the March 26 suspected gang murders that led President Nayib Baukele to seek congressional approval for an emergency. Harsh measures against imprisoned gang members and increased prison sentences followed, as well as the arrests of some 6,000 suspected gang members.

But, the new law increases Bukele’s attack on the press, which is another frequent target.

“These reforms are clearly an attempt to censor media,” said the El Salvador Journalists Association in a Wednesday statement. “Prohibiting journalism from reporting the reality in which thousands of people inhabiting these gang-controlled communities live … will create an illusion that is not faithful to the truth.”

The Inter American Press Association said the new law was equivalent to “criminalizing the work of the media and journalists.”

IAPA President Jorge Canahuati called it “a legal gag, a direct and prior censorship of the media that will have profound consequences for Salvadoran society.”

“A country cannot block violence by censoring public opinion, since it is precisely in public debate that societies find the solutions to their problems,” Canahuati wrote.

The reforms were approved by 63 legislators and became effective Tuesday night.

The law says that “radio, television, written or digital media” would face 10 to 15 years in prison for “the reproduction or transmission to the general population of messages or statements originating or presumably originating from said criminal groups, that could generate anxiety and panic in the population.”

The measure also establishes prison sentences of 10 to 15 years for painting the sort of graffiti commonly used to mark gang territory in neighborhoods across El Salvador.

Bukele slammed the media and non-governmental organisations as well as international organizations that criticize some of the actions taken against the gangs. They are accused of supporting the criminals.

Criminal defence lawyer Tahnya pastor said that the law reform clearly prohibits media from disseminating messages about gangs, but it wasn’t comprehensive.

She said that although she did not believe the ban would apply to anyone writing about gangs but any media outlet that distributes messages about their control over areas where panic could occur would be in violation of the law.

Others offered a more expansive interpretation. At a Wednesday news conference, Cesar Fagoaga (president of the journalists association) stated that “it’s not just affecting us; it’s also affecting people’s information.” This reforms is trying to get people to censor themselves and for us to not say anything.”

Under the state of emergency, the government has limited freedom of association, suspended the right to be informed of one’s rights at the time of arrest and denied access to lawyers. An suspect may now be detained for 15days without being charged, rather than 72hours. The meals of imprisoned gang members were reduced to two times per day and they are restricted from leaving their cells. They also had their mattresses removed.

Bukele said via Twitter Tuesday that he had sent proposals to the Legislative Assembly, adding, “We will see, once again, who is with the people and who is with the gangs.”

Marcela Pineda, a lawmaker from Bukele’s New Ideas Party, said Tuesday that, “With those reforms we are telling the gangsters that they can’t send audios or text chains to generate fear in the population.”

Bukele had hit that theme earlier in the day, saying there were rumors gangs might retaliate for the crackdown by attacking civilians and he threatened to withhold food from imprisoned gang members if they did. The press association noted that reports have suggested that Bukele’s administration had made deals to provide political support and lower the murder rate in return for other benefits. In December, the U.S. Treasury Department repeated these allegations by claiming that Bukele’s government bought the support of the gangs with financial benefits as well as privileges for inmates. Bukele strongly denied all of the allegations.

” I don’t care about what international organisations say. The president suggested that they should come to our country and help us protect our citizens. “They can take their gang members if they want; we’ll give them all of them.”

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