Signs that read “They Will Not Silence Us” and “Without journalism, there is no democracy” are displayed during a sit-in against the threat to freedom of expression and the criminal prosecution of communicators, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, 4 March 2023 JOHN ORDONEZ/AFP via Getty Images.
In addition to extralegal violence, the region’s independent media have been subjected to repressive laws and politicized prosecutions.
Latin America is a dangerous place to practice journalism. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the region accounted for nearly half of all killings of reporters and media workers in 2022. And while Mexico topped the list as the world’s deadliest country for the press, alarming developments in the neighboring states of Central America have garnered less attention.
Journalists in Central America have long faced extralegal violence in reprisal for investigating organized crime, corruption, and its impact on local communities. But their courageous work to expose official abuse and, in some cases, government collusion with violent gangs has also put them solidly in the crosshairs of corrupt political leaders. The spread of repressive tactics from one country to another suggests that authoritarians in the area may be learning from one another in their quest to consolidate wealth and power at the expense of the public interest.
Criminalizing independent journalism
Today, many authoritarians rely on a veneer of democracy for domestic and international legitimacy. Rather than engaging in direct censorship or overtly criminalizing dissent, they pass vaguely worded laws designed to characterize their opponents as common criminals, foreign agents, terrorists, or gang sympathizers.
For example, politically co-opted prosecutors have used laws against money laundering to target prominent journalists. A Guatemalan judge convicted José Rubén Zamora, founder of El Periodico, of money laundering after the independent newspaper exposed serious corruption. Zamora is currently serving a six-year prison sentence, and nine of his colleagues are under investigation for their work, including their coverage of his flawed trial. The paper itself was forced to close in May 2023.
In Nicaragua, Juan Lorenzo Holmann, the publisher of La Prensa, was sentenced to nine years in prison in April 2022 for alleged money laundering. Amid international outrage, the government released him from detention, stripped him of his citizenship, and expelled him from the country. Police have shut down the offices of La Prensa, as well as the news site Confidencial and the television station 100% Noticias, in retaliation for their critical reporting. An estimated 120 journalists have fled the country since 2018.
These cases came after several governments granted themselves new powers to monitor the finances of civil society organizations and curb their ability to receive donations from outside the country. The moves are intended in part to cut off a vital revenue stream for independent newsrooms, which often rely on philanthropy in the face of persistent government efforts to deprive them of advertising revenue. After restrictive foreign funding laws were passed in Guatemala and Nicaragua in 2020, politicians in El Salvador went further by proposing a 40 percent tax on news outlets and civic groups that receive foreign donations. Honduran legislators passed reforms to define members of civil society organizations as “political exposed persons,” a designation that makes it more difficult to secure access to financial resources.
Ironically, even as officials clamp down on foreign funding for civic and media groups, the proceeds of drug trafficking and corruption continue to flow unhindered. The former president of Honduras was recently charged by US prosecutors with taking bribes from drug trafficking groups, and has been accused at home of funneling millions of dollars to nearly 80 journalists in exchange for favorable coverage.
Spying on democracy’s watchdogs
While El Salvador’s legislature appears to have shelved a bill on “foreign agents” that drew widespread criticism for its restrictions on journalists and civic activists, the country did pass a law assigning prison terms of 10 to 15 years for reproducing or transmitting messages from criminal groups. The measure came shortly after the independent outlet El Faro published an exposé about secret negotiations between President Nayib Bukele and representatives from three prominent gangs, who agreed to promote the ruling party and lower gun violence in return for avoiding extradition to the United States.
This coupling of political and security goals runs through Bukele’s broader crackdown on organized crime, during which fundamental rights, such as freedom of assembly, due process, and the right to an attorney, have been suspended. Surveillance is rampant, and journalists are not just incidental victims but prime targets: between July 2020 and November 2021, forensic researchers found evidence that 22 El Faro employees had been targeted with Pegasus spyware, a phone-hacking tool sold by Israel’s NSO Group exclusively to governments.
President Bukele and others in the region may be emulating the Mexican government, NSO Group’s longest-running client. Since Mexico struck a deal with the company in 2011, researchers have documented hundreds of victims of unjust surveillance, including lawyers who were representing Mexican victims of mass disappearance. A 2020 report by Citizen Lab showed that the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were likely clients of Circles, another Israeli surveillance company, while a 2018 investigation by Haaretz found that the Nicaraguan government had purchased spyware from an unnamed Israeli company.
A shrinking space for free media
In the face of trumped-up criminal investigations, media workers at El Salvador’s El Faro and Nicaragua’s La Prensa have been forced to seek refuge abroad and set up new legal entities in Costa Rica. Although that country remains far more democratic than its neighbors, President Rodrigo Chaves Robles, elected in 2022 on a populist platform, has shown a willingness to mimic the region’s authoritarians. He has used smears and dehumanizing rhetoric to harass journalists at La Nación, CRHoy, and Channel 7. The attacks came after La Nación reported on the disciplinary actions taken against Chaves for alleged sexual harassment while he was working at the World Bank, as well as on allegations of illegal campaign financing that are currently under investigation. The president sought retribution by ordering the closure of an events space owned by La Nación’s parent company, though the order was reversed by the constitutional court in October 2022.
Panama, another relatively stable democracy to the south, has similarly shown evidence of political pressure on the media. Since 2020, a court has frozen the accounts of a prominent newspaper over its anticorruption reporting on a former president.
If information is the lifeblood of democracy, then a free press acts as part of the immune system against corruption and tyranny. But the work of intrepid journalists puts them in danger of retaliation by powerful interests. Rather than protecting investigative reporters and promoting their invaluable efforts to expose the harms of organized crime, Central American governments are directly and indirectly colluding with criminal groups to prevent the media from checking their own abuses.
In the words of El Faro editor Óscar Martínez, “The governments of Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are becoming less and less reluctant to present themselves in public as what they are: enemies of the independent press.” While the recent election of a new Guatemalan president has raised hopes for change, democracy’s defenders in government and the private sector worldwide need to do more to support local journalists and hold this region’s leaders accountable for antidemocratic practices.