In late September, Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador, was in a combative mood and determined to send a clear message to local journalists gathered in the presidential palace for a nationally televised address.
After his opening statement, handpicked reporters were called upon to ask questions. Reading from their smartphones, they posed what seemed like prepared launching pads for Bukele. The president quickly cued up video and screen grabs of tweets to discredit as “false” a recent investigation by the independent news outlet El Faro, which is Spanish for The Lighthouse.
Citing official prison logbooks and intelligence reports, El Faro claimed the government had secretly negotiated with members of the MS-13 gang – considered a terrorist organization in El Salvador - to decrease the number of homicides and secure electoral support in exchange for more lenient prison conditions.
President Bukele then went on to claim, without providing any evidence, that El Faro was under investigation for money laundering.
This isn’t the first time El Faro has been the subject of government criticism. Founded in 1998 as a digital only news site, El Faro has reported on corruption, migration, organized crime and police brutality, earning prestigious journalism awards from Columbia University, the King of Spain and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
But since Bukele swept into office in 2019, El Faro and other independent news outlets have been under increased pressure, including bans on certain reporters from presidential press conferences, defamatory articles in government-controlled media, cyber-attacks, break-ins and theft.
For months, El Faro has been the target of a sweeping tax audit. Its lawyers have argued in court that the records requested by the finance ministry exceed the scope of the audit to include documents that could disclose internal editorial discussions about ongoing stories and individual subscriber data.
Bukele’s attacks on critical news outlets have crystallized just as mounting questions have surfaced about alleged corruption in his own administration. Since the coronavirus pandemic, more than a dozen journalistic investigations have revealed evidence of corruption related to the government’s response. Revista Factum and Washington DC-based thinktank IBI Consultants have reported on a series of deals between Bukele and Alba Petróleos, a subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, both of which are under U.S. sanctions in connection to money laundering concerns. Citing an ongoing investigation by the prosecutor’s office, the reports indicate Bukele and his inner circle received several millions of dollars from Alba Petróleos.
At home, Bukele enjoys overwhelming approval ratings. The 39-year-old former mayor of San Salvador was elected as a political outsider independent of the political caste that had governed El Salvador since the bloody civil war ended in the 1990s. He’s an adept user of social media, wears stylish leather jackets and backward baseball caps, and is seen as tough on crime and corruption.
Bukele is a key ally of President Donald Trump, who he has called “ very nice and cool.” Last year, Bukele reached an agreement with the Trump administration that will allow the U.S. to send asylum seekers from other countries to El Salvador, one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Bukele has also publicly acknowledged taking the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine touted by Trump to combat coronavirus, despite warnings about its safety.
But Bukele’s attacks on a free press are symptomatic of a larger disdain for democratic institutions. In February, he deployed special forces soldiers armed with assault rifles, tactical helmets and vests into the Legislative Assembly to bully lawmakers into approving funding for security forces fighting street gangs. Then in April, he defied a Supreme Court ruling striking down the detention of thousands of people by the military for violating of the country’s strict coronavirus lockdown. In an apparent show of force, Bukele’s office also released degrading photos of hundreds of prisoners who had been stripped down to their white shorts, lined up on the floor and forced to place their heads on each other’s backs.
Lawmakers in Washington are paying attention. In early September, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Elliot Engel and Senator Patrick Leahy wrote to Bukele directly to express their concern about what “appears to be an effort to intimidate” El Faro. Six Republicans followed up with their own letter just a few days before Bukele’s nationally broadcast press conference calling out El Salvador’s “slow but sure departure from the rule of law and norms of democracy.”
Bukele dismissed the letters as the work of lobbyists and a small group of lawmakers. “Getting congressmen to write a letter is the easiest thing in the world,” Bukele said.
With Bukele’s attempts to silence critical news coverage and other authoritarian measures front and center, Congress held off on extending a deadline to spend $277 million in foreign aid approved for El Salvador. Congress should continue to ask for protections for the press and a for checks and balances between the branches of government before approving any new funding.
Meanwhile, Bukele should take note of the concern in Washington on both sides of the aisle. The November elections could end on a public rebuke of the Trump administration and that may leave Bukele in an even weaker position if he does not dramatically change course soon.
Isaac Lee is executive chairman of EXILE Content and former Chief Content Officer for Univision Communications and Televisa.