The High Price of Doing Journalism in El Salvador

A reporter teams up with the American journalist who first broke the story of the El Mozote massacre, tracking El Salvador’s faltering efforts to hold the perpetrators accountable, in a new documentary from Retro Report, ProPublica and FRONTLINE.

On Dec. 10, 1981, an American-trained unit of the Salvadoran army stormed into a remote village near the country’s border with Honduras. In the days that followed, the soldiers killed nearly 1,000 civilians, most of them women and children. Raymond Bonner, a ProPublica and Retro Report contributor who was then working for The New York Times, traveled with photographer Susan Meiselas through rebel-held territory to report on the massacre. Their story about the atrocities and a similar account by The Washington Post’s Alma Guillermoprieto were fiercely attacked by the Reagan administration, which viewed El Salvador’s military as an essential ally in the fight against the country’s leftist rebels. Administration officials insisted El Mozote had been the site of a firefight between the army and rebels. After the war finally ended in January 1992, investigators began to dig up the bodies. Of the more than 140 remains first exhumed, more than 95% were children; the average age was 6 years old. Many had been rounded up and locked in a convent, then killed in a fusillade of fire before the building was burned. The reporters had been right all along.

Four decades after he filed his first story on El Mozote, Bonner returned to El Salvador and teamed up with Nelson Rauda, a reporter with the independent news outlet El Faro, to track the country’s faltering efforts to hold the perpetrators accountable. The key to that inquiry was a Salvadoran judge who heard testimony from victims, families and some of the military officers involved. Taken together, the evidence indicated that the El Mozote attack was part of a pattern set by El Salvador’s military and political leadership. Bonner and Rauda’s reporting is traced in a documentary that airs on Wednesday and was produced by the nonprofit news organization Retro Report and the PBS program FRONTLINE. (Check your local schedules for airtimes.) The following story, by Rauda, details the personal costs of doing this work in a country whose populist president has handcuffed the judiciary and publicly attacked journalists who challenge the official line.

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By Nelson Rauda

Special for Retro Report & ProPublica

I spent my 30th birthday fighting with the president of my country, El Salvador, on Twitter over an article I wrote for ProPublica.

In the story, Raymond Bonner and I disclosed that the judge leading the investigation of the El Mozote massacre was about to be removed.

President Nayib Bukele told his 3 million Twitter followers that our story was entirely false. “It’s not even biased journalism or activism, it’s trash,” he declared in one tweet. I answered a couple times, and then Bukele wrote that everyone who believed in my reporting was stupid.

Two months later, the judge handling the El Mozote case was removed, along with scores of his colleagues; many were replaced by judges appointed by Bukele’s hand-picked Supreme Court. The Salvadoran administration says the law — which forced any judge 60 or over to retire — is designed to root out judicial corruption. Our reporting had been accurate, and the El Mozote case is now in limbo, its future uncertain.

My harsh online dispute with our nation’s most powerful official would be an anecdote, the kind of story journalists tell our friends in bars and at parties, except it’s not an isolated incident. It happens every day in El Salvador. And it’s not just on Twitter. It affects my life, the lives of my family, and those of my colleagues and their families. As Bukele builds his persona as a populist and the sole source of truth, it is becoming increasingly hard to live in El Salvador as a journalist who writes stories contradicting the government’s line. In a myriad of ways, the government has made it clear that we will face severe consequences for doing our job as reporters. It’s not a possibility, or even a prediction. We are already paying the price.

The Journalists Association of El Salvador, of which I’m a board member, keeps a record of attacks against journalists in the country. This includes acts of physical aggression, threats, digital harassment and firings. The trend is alarming: In 2018, there were 65 attacks; the next year, 77 (Bukele took office on June 1, 2019). The association reported 125 incidents last year and, as October drew to a close, we’ve documented 201 cases in 2021.

Numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. In February 2021, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures for me and 33 colleagues at El Faro because it considers our “rights to life and personal integrity at risk of suffering irreparable damage.” El Faro has extensively covered the El Mozote trial over the years, but the news site has also uncovered evidence of corruption in Bukele’s Cabinet and written about his secret negotiations with MS-13, a Salvadoran organized crime group. In its resolution calling for the Salvadoran government to protect the El Faro journalists, the commission cited several examples of the threats we have received, which included mentions of setting fire to our headquarters, using a car bomb against journalists from El Faro, and an anonymous threat from someone who wanted to “put three bullets” in my head after I clashed with Bukele at a press conference in May 2020.

After an El Faro employee reported inappropriate behavior by a colleague at a party to the news site’s management, a government-run media organization turned it into an unsubstantiated rape allegation. The alleged victim publicly denied that there had been any sexual assault or harassment and said her story had been manipulated to silence the press. El Faro has sued the publication, but several of my colleagues and I were summoned by the attorney general’s office to answer questions about it. The president has also said El Faro journalists are being investigated for money laundering, and the Finance Ministry has opened multiple audits of our publication. Recently, immigration officials denied a work permit for a colleague who is an American citizen and expelled an editor who is Mexican. We joke about going to prison, but it’s a very real possibility. My wife and I have prepared a list of things to do if I’m detained.

On social media, we’re commonly described with the terms favored by the president and government officials: “garbage,” “criminals,” “traffickers,” “mafioso,” “sewer of sold journalism,” “corrupt.”

The attacks on El Faro are broad. Earlier this year, Bukele went after a company that had bought an online advertisement from us. The unsubtle implication? Do business with El Faro and the government will punish you. Companies and the public are starting to take notice. When a bank denied me a loan, the executive told me that it was “because of my workplace.” Loida Avelar, a friend of mine, applied to rent a house, but the landlord turned her down after learning she worked as a journalist at an independent outlet.

While you read this, keep in mind: I’m privileged. Although I have to deal with the threats and danger brought by public tiffs with the president, I received a college education, I speak English, I have a job with full benefits, I don’t live in a gang-controlled community. That is not the case for hundreds of Salvadoran journalists and for millions of citizens who have to deal with this government and these hard realities.

For El Salvador, this is deja vu. Powerful elites have long used hate speech to silence critical voices and media. Raymond Bonner, the American journalist who uncovered the El Mozote massacre in 1982, went through a similar campaign of government harassment and attacks against his credibility. Granted, there was no internet to intensify the pressure, but it existed nonetheless.

El Salvador has a long history with authoritarian regimes. The advent of a military-dominated regime in the early 1980s led to a massive exodus to America. Now, it’s happening again. Almost 100,000 Salvadorans have been detained by U.S. Border Patrol in 2021. There are complex reasons driving this migration as my countrymen flee everything from gang violence to the devastating effects of climate change. But Bukele’s governing style has also had an impact. Carlos Dada, El Faro’s director, talks of “a silent exile” that affects all kinds of citizens, including journalists, lawyers and members of the political opposition.

We are still recovering from the wounds inflicted by a civil war that tore our country apart, and our democracy is again under threat. That’s why I am committed to telling the truth about our history and shedding light on the horrific events of three or four decades ago — even if the president doesn’t like it and has his eye on preventing journalists from disrupting his official narrative.

Nelson Rauda is a Salvadoran journalist who works for El Faro, Central America’s first online-only newsmagazine.