Nayib Bukele's recipe for limiting the exercise of human rights

By Astrid Valencia & Josefina Salomón

The president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, was elected in June 2019 on a platform in which he promised, among other things, to promote and defend human rights.

More than two years later, the country is facing what seems more like a campaign to stigmatize and silence those who dare to question the politics of the government and defend the human rights of all people than the electoral promise.

Some of the official tactics seem to have been taken from neighbouring countries, others have been designed taking advantage of new technologies. In all cases, they are eroding human rights in El Salvador in an alarming manner.

Here are three of the ingredients in this dangerous recipe:

  1. Harassment and discrediting of activists on social media and the closure of spaces for dialogue

Defending human rights is risky work all over Latin America. In El Salvador, the climate of attacks and harassment against activists and organizations, particularly those who demand more transparency and accountability from the government, has increased in recent years, and especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The campaign of harassment has played out on social media platforms, from which high-ranking government officials, including President Bukele, have used their accounts to dismiss the work of human rights organizations, accusing them of being “criminals”, “seeking the death of more people”, and of being “front organizations” and part of the politicalopposition”. In this way, they have inspired their thousands of followers to carry out waves of harrassment, the impact of which transcends the screens.

Members of human rights organizations have reported that this type of systematic harassment creates a hostile environment in which defending the human rights of the most vulnerable people becomes an increasingly dangerous task.

“The attacks may begin on social media, but El Salvador is a very small country, so when they say ‘a person is from such-and-such a side’ it is enough to turn into attacks with comments and to transcend the digital context and become threats and monitoring,” a representative of the Salvadorean Human Rights Defenders Network explains, having documented an increase in aggression against activists and journalists. “It is a context of extreme hostility, which paves the way for fear and self-censoring. Anyone who is critical is classified as the enemy.”

Organizations, including the Network, have reported that, alongside the harassment campaigns, in the last two years they have seen the progressive closure of spaces for dialogue and reporting. They say that the spaces for regular and effective dialogue between government bodies and human rights organizations to contribute to the design of public policies have been closing down and are now almost inexistant.

In fact, the government recently refused to appear before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in a hearing in which, together with local organizations, the current situation of the country was to be addressed. With this, the government not only showed that it was not open to international scrutiny, but also decided to miss a vital opportunity to have a constructive dialogue with civil society. In addition, mistrust of the authorities responsible for investigating the attacks against activists and journalists means that reports rarely reach the relevant authorities.

“In identifying human rights organizations as scapegoats for the problems that El Salvador is facing, President Bukele is not only restricting freedoms, but is wasting the talent and constructive opinions of those who want the best for their country,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International. “Accepting constructive criticism, learning from the proposals and recommendations of civil society and establishing dialogue as a means of participation are the minimum requirements expected of a government with a commitment to human rights.” 

  1. Harassment of journalists 

For journalists in El Salvador, the situation has not been much better.

As with human rights defenders, journalists have reported an escalation of the campaign of attacks and harassment on social media, to which tactics such as monitoring and legal harassment have been added.

The former president of the El Salvador Association of Journalists, Angélica Cárcamo, for example, reported at the end of June that members of the security forces had staked out her house in an apparent act of intimidation.

Journalists from El Faro, on the other hand, have reported a systematic campaign of public attacks and baseless reports which, they say, are aimed at discrediting one of the most respected media outlets in the country.

And they are not the only ones. The attacks against journalists and social communicators have intensified so much recently that the country has dropped eight places on the Reporters Without Borders ranking of freedom of the press in 2021. The drop was related to the number of obstacles facing journalists in the country when carrying out their work, including problems with access to information, the seizure of journalistic materials by the authorities and the refusal of high-ranking officials to respond to questions, among other things.

In June, the Minister for Justice and Public Security stated that the articles published by some media outlets advocated crime and indicated that they are “monitoring many journalists”.

“The president and his government have a strategy of systematic erosion of any type of dissident voice. They started with political opposition parties, and now they are putting journalists and all the organizations that they are uncomfortable with into the same category. They are trying to discredit us in order to invalidate us, it is not a new strategy,” explains Sergio Arauz, editor of El Faro. “The conditions are more difficult than ever. I believe that every journalist who is clear about our role is worried. We have seen signs from the president and his spokespeople that this is not going to get better.”

In July, the media reported that migration authorities ordered the deportation of the editor of El Faro, who is Mexican and was in the process of applying for his work permit. According to the newspaper, which considers this act a form of harassment and restriction of its exercise of freedom of the press, the authorities justified their decision by claiming that the renowned editor could not prove that he is a journalist.

Arauz and his colleagues are among those who have already implemented their own security strategies and due to a lack of trust in the independence of the national authorities have turned to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has granted precautionary measures to 34 of them.

  1. No space for human rights on the current legislative agenda

Outside of the digital context, the Bukele administration, including the government party that holds a majority in the Legislative Assembly, has advocated for legislative measures that could put human rights and the right to defend rights at risk.

On 19 May 2021, for example, the Legislative Assembly approved the creation of the ‘Special Commission to investigate the allocation of funds granted to non-profit organizations, associations and foundations.’ The Commission will investigate non-governmental organizations that have received state funds in previous years. While in principle the law could be taken to be an initiative to improve transparency, the fact that the Commission is comprised solely of politicians from the ruling party and those associated with it has called its impartiality into question.

At the same time, the Assembly has shelved a series of draft bills aimed at improving protection for those who defend human rights. The same day that the Special Commission was created, for example, the Justice and Human Rights Commission of the Legislative Assembly shelved the draft bill for the Law on the Comprehensive Recognition and Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the Guarantee of the Right to Defend Human Rights, the proposal for which was presented to the Assembly some years ago. Human rights organizations warn that this could “perpetuate the context of hostility and powerlessness in which human rights defenders carry out their work”.   

The draft Law on Gender Identity, the Special Law on Equality and Non-Discrimination, the Law on Protection of Journalists, the proposals for reform of the Criminal Code in regard to the four grounds for abortion and the legislative initiatives for the laws on Creation of the System for Disappeared and Unidentified Persons and the National Genetic Data Bank also suffered the same fate.

The spokesperson for the Network of Defenders says that the measures that the Assembly is advocating are similar to those recently approved in neighbouring countries which led to the removal of the legal status of many organizations which were forced to stop their work. “The fear is that this is a type of revenge against organizations that have been critical of the government,” the activist explains.

In turn, Guevara-Rosas of Amnesty International concludes that “when harassment on social media is added to actions such as restricting public information, closing spaces for dialogue, and blocking laws for protection and effective participation, the result is nothing short of terrifying”.

Astrid Valencia is a researcher for Central America at Amnesty International. Josefina Salomón is an independent journalist.