El Salvador’s congress has authorized prison sentences of 10 to 15 years for news media that reproduce or disseminate messages from gangs, prompting accusations of censorship from press freedom groups.
The vote late on Tuesday was the latest in a flurry of legislative action against the gangs after 62 suspected gang killings on March 26 led President Nayib Bukele to seek and win a state of emergency. Harsh measures against imprisoned gang members and increased prison sentences followed, as well as the arrests of some 6,000 people accused of being gang members.
But the newest law expands Bukele’s offensive against the press, another of his frequent targets.
“We consider these reforms to be a clear attempt at censorship of media,” the El Salvador Journalists Association said in a statement on Wednesday. “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 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 has taken an increasingly combative stance with anyone daring to question his government, and recently claimed that human rights NGOs, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and George Soros’s Open Society Foundations are gang associates.
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. A suspect can now be held for 15 days without charges rather than 72 hours. Imprisoned gang members had their meals reduced to twice a day, are not allowed out of their cells and had their mattresses taken.
Marcela Pineda, a lawmaker from Bukele’s New Ideas party, said on Tuesday: “With those reforms we are telling the gangsters that they can not 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. He threatened to withhold food from imprisoned gang members if they did.
The press association also noted there had been reports suggesting that Bukele’s administration, like other administrations before it, had made deals with the gangs to lower the murder rate and provide political support in exchange for other benefits. The US treasury department echoed those allegations in December, saying that Bukele’s government had bought the gangs’ support with financial benefits and privileges for imprisoned leaders. Bukele has vehemently denied the accusations.