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Lessons From El Salvador: Security Begins With Solidarity

By Frank Smyth

Nearly 25 years ago, as the Berlin Wall was coming down in Europe, El Salvador's leftist guerrillas launched the largest military offensive of the nation's long civil war. The rebels took over parts of the capital and other cities from a foundering U.S.-backed Salvadoran military. After four days, the military high command decided to fight back in the way it knew best--by murdering the unarmed critics whom it had accused of being rebel sympathizers.

Honduran journalists protest the murder of their colleague, Ángel Alfredo Villatoro. The sign reads, 'Martyr of the press, we will never forget you.' (AFP/Orlando Sierra)

The slaughter started with the Jesuit priests who ran the nation's largest private university, Universidad Centroamericana, and who published and edited a weekly newsletter and monthly journal closely read by international policy makers. The priests--Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró, and Segundo Montes--also ran select foreign stories in translation, including several of mine. Although I hadn't necessarily thought of the three as professional colleagues at the time, their journalistic role was clear. The Jesuits explained events in a way that few in the nation's press corps still dared after a string of murders targeting journalists and other critics.

"When the Jesuits were killed, their relationship to news and its distribution had much to do with their being targeted," said Anne Nelson, who served as CPJ's executive director at the time. CPJ documented the priest's deaths and called them journalists in the 1989 edition of Attacks on the Press. In effect, the organization concluded that the practice of journalism--not one's position or title or publication--is what makes an individual a journalist. Today, the priests' names are etched in the glass plates of the Journalists Memorial at the Newseum in Washington.

The November 1989 murders of the three priests--killed along with three other Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter--came at a pivotal moment for the press corps in El Salvador. Three other journalists were murdered earlier that year, punctuating years of brutal violence against domestic and international reporters. It became clear that mobilizing the press in a united front would be crucial in keeping journalists alive.


By its nature, front-line journalism will never be safe. Reporters respond to conflict, photographers head toward danger. But the risk can be compounded by divisions in the press corps. In every country, there is much that can divide journalists: political perspectives, ethnicity, religion, and professional rivalries, to name a few. Journalists working in new formats are sometimes shunned by those working in traditional media. Something as basic as the geographical divide between rural and urban journalists can get in the way of professional solidarity.

But as journalists learned in El Salvador and in other dangerous places such as Colombia, professional solidarity is essential in stemming reprisals. Defending a single journalist who is under attack, no matter the individual's position or perspective, ends up protecting the practice of journalism for everyone. Today, professional solidarity is being tested with mixed results in nations such as Turkey, Honduras, Mali, and Brazil.

Even as Turkey's international profile has risen, it faces severe challenges from a long-standing Kurdish insurgency, deep internal political divisions, and civil war on its doorstep in Syria. Successive governments--most recently, the administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan--have a long record of prosecuting and jailing journalists.

Historically, Kurdish journalists have borne the brunt of these prosecutions, typically on charges of aiding terrorist organizations by covering the viewpoints and activities of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. In 2004, left-leaning and Kurdish journalists formed the Platform in Solidarity With Arrested Journalists, complaining that Kurdish journalists were being jailed for merely interviewing rebel fighters. Other Turkish press groups, the Platform said, "were not defending those journalists at all--they were not even recognizing them as journalists."

The authorities have expanded their repressive tactics in recent years: Dozens of non-Kurdish journalists have been jailed on allegations they took part in anti-government plots or were members of banned political movements. Thousands of other criminal prosecutions have been brought against writers and editors accused of "denigrating Turkishness" by presenting unpopular views, or interfering with law enforcement proceedings by reporting too critically about government investigations. In an August 2012 television appearance, Erdoğan delivered a "message to all media" in which he instructed them to stop covering the Kurdish conflict. Any reporting on the PKK's activities, he said, amounted to propaganda.

Few Turkish media outlets or mainstream journalists have challenged the government's efforts to suppress news of the Kurdish conflict or spoken out on behalf of their jailed Kurdish colleagues. "The mainstream Turkish media have been contaminated by the discourse of war and are easily tempted to be a part of the ruling elite," Ece Temelkuran, a well-known Turkish journalist and author, told CPJ. The fractious response to the crackdown on Kurdish journalists has ultimately left the entire press corps vulnerable.

The Erdoğan government has exploited the deep-seated political and ethnic divisions among journalists to isolate critics in the press. It then pressures the politically sensitive owners of media outlets--most of them corporate entities with diverse holdings--to rein in or fire the critics. "The journalists and writers of the mainstream press don't show more solidarity with the arrested journalists and writers because they are afraid of the government," Necati Abay, a founder and spokesman for the Platform in Solidarity With Arrested Journalists, told CPJ. "The fear of losing your job reduces solidarity."


A staggering number of journalists have been killed in Honduras since the 2009 military-backed coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya. Fourteen reporters and editors have been murdered, at least three in direct relation to their work.

Honduran journalists stepped up in May 2012 when thousands marched in Tegucigalpa and four other cities to protest the slayings, nearly all of which have been committed with impunity. One protester wore tape over her mouth with the handwritten words, "If I Speak I Die." The march was organized after the murder of a popular radio host, Ángel Alfredo Villatoro, whose body was found with two bullet wounds to the head a week after he was abducted. "This is a call for attention that we want to send to the authorities, mainly to those who handle matters of justice, that they must guarantee our right to exercise our profession without fear, murders, or threats," journalist Yessenia Torres told the marchers.

Though the Association of Journalists of Honduras, a leading professional group, had co-sponsored the march, it all but ignored the earlier string of journalist murders. "They talk about press freedom, but they don't act when journalists are attacked," said Héctor Becerra, executive director of a grassroots group called Committee for Free Expression or C-Libre. Becerra and others formed C-Libre in 2001 after concluding that the nation's largest journalism groups acted only in cases involving their own members. The Association of Journalists of Honduras did not return calls, emails, and social media messages seeking comment.

The Honduran press corps, like the country, has been polarized since the June 2009 coup that ousted the leftist Zelaya. Many of the journalists murdered since the coup were perceived as supportive of Zelaya--and many worked for local broadcast outlets outside the capital. These journalists, said Becerra, typically don't belong to any national union or professional group that can publicize the cases.

Journalists in Mali faced a similar test after two decades of democracy came to an abrupt end in March 2012. A northern insurgency fueled by arms from neighboring Libya, combined with a military coup led by junior officers and enlisted men, divided the nation and put journalists at risk from all sides. In the capital, Bamako, military authorities detained and interrogated at least eight journalists after the March coup, accusing some of having rebel ties. In the north, where ethnic Tuareg rebels allied with radical Jihadi militants, more than a dozen radio stations were attacked, journalists were dragged off the air, and severe censorship measures were imposed.

As in Honduras, journalists in Mali were initially divided over the coup, said Manak Kone, president of the Mali Press Center. The organization, established in 1995, had focused primarily on training and information services until mounting anti-press attacks forced it into an advocacy role. In July 2012, for example, eight masked gunmen stormed the offices of L'Indépendant after the paper ran stories critical of the new military regime, abducting publisher Saouti Labass Haïdara. He was found dumped by a roadside four hours later, with head and hand injuries. The Mali Press Center helped organize a demonstration in response, delivering a statement to the new government "to protest against aggression, intimidations, kidnappings and other bullying experienced by Malian journalists."

Journalists in the capital were less vocal, however, about attacks on their colleagues in the rural north. Malick Aliou Maïga, a prominent local radio journalist who also filed stories for the U.S. government-funded Voice of America, was beaten by Islamist rebels in the northeast in August. The press in Bamako covered the attack only after it received international attention.

Despite the slow response, Kone said, the Bamako press is becoming more aware of the plight of its northern colleagues. Reporters who have fled the rural northern areas are recounting their experiences to counterparts in the capital, he said. Solidarity may be making a difference now in Bamako. In October 2012, the transitional government of interim leader Dioncounda Traoré agreed to meet with civil society groups, including the Mali Press Center, to talk about attacks on human rights and press freedom.


Events in Brazil illustrate both the successes of professional solidarity, and the continuing challenges. After the 2002 abduction and murder of TV Globo correspondent Tim Lopes in Rio de Janeiro, journalists came together to form the Association of Brazilian Investigative Journalists, or ABRAJI. The association galvanized Brazil's news media, creating a network to spread information about attacks on the press and organize efforts to press for justice. The publicity and pressure have had results: Perpetrators have been convicted in at least five journalist slayings over the past seven years, and the authorities have won convictions against masterminds in at least two cases.

But journalist murders spiked in Brazil in 2011 and 2012, with at least seven killings coming in direct relation to victims' work. "Most of the cases happened in the countryside, or in regions where corruption is widespread among justice and police departments," said Marcelo Moreira, editor-in-chief of TV Globo and president of ABRAJI. The attacks get little attention in the national media, he said, because the press in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo typically views provincial journalists as corrupt or politically biased. This, in turn, makes it much harder for ABRAJI and other groups to pressure police to solve the crimes, Moreira said.

Colombian journalists face similar challenges in protecting provincial colleagues, but their overall efforts to promote professional solidarity have yielded notable successes. Though the country remains a dangerous place for the press, the fatality rate has dropped significantly in the past decade. Twelve journalists have been killed for their work since 2003, CPJ research shows, about one-third the number recorded in the previous decade.

The development of what is now an extensive press freedom movement in Colombia came over decades that were marked by setbacks. The movement dates to 1986, when drug traffickers led by Pablo Escobar murdered Guillermo Cano, publisher of the newspaper El Espectador. His murder--the seventh work-related slaying that year--rallied the press corps into action. Broadcast and print news outlets organized a rare 24-hour news blackout to protest the murder. El Espectador joined with rival media outlets in a collaborative project to investigate and publish stories about drug trafficking and its devastating effect on society. The collaboration demonstrated that the Colombian press would not be intimidated by criminals and would push even harder to expose the cartels.

Still, attacks on the Colombian press abated only for a time. Journalist murders began rising again in the early 1990s. Similar to the situation in Honduras today, perceived political divisions among Colombian journalists--whether they represent the right or the left--helped undermine solidarity. Finally, in 1996, journalists of all kinds--from the writer Gabriel García Márquez to Francisco Santos Calderón, whose family owned the nation's largest daily, El Tiempo, and who later became the nation's vice president--came together to form the Bogotá-based Foundation for Press Freedom. The group, commonly known as FLIP, created a nationwide network of volunteer correspondents to document attacks on the press, published a field security manual, and pushed the government to provide direct assistance to journalists under threat. Media outlets undertook several collaborative investigations and agreed to general guidelines on how to cover violence without glorifying it.

"We move solidarity for big and small things," said Ignacio Gómez, a CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner and a former El Espectador investigative reporter who also helped found FLIP. He said FLIP enjoys wide support because it not only denounces violent attacks, but also intervenes in lesser matters such as criminal defamation cases.


The Salvador Foreign Press Corps Association was started in the 1980s with a bit of tongue-in-cheek joking: Its founders chose the acronym, SPCA, the same one used by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Although the press corps at the time seemed as polarized as the nation, the SPCA eventually became the first line of defense when a journalist was targeted. The attacks peaked during a 14-hour period on the eve of presidential elections in March 1989. Without provocation, government troops in separate cities shot and killed two Salvadoran journalists, one working for Reuters and the other for the local Channel 12 television news. During the same period, a government helicopter fired on a convoy of journalists rushing a wounded Dutch cameraman to the hospital, forcing the journalists to take cover while the cameraman bled to death.

Journalists responded with one voice. At a news conference that day, a Salvadoran reporter put military commanders on the spot: Had the soldiers who opened fire on journalists taken their cue from senior officers who openly held the press in contempt? CPJ sent a delegation to investigate, meeting with military commanders. I was elected to the leadership of SPCA on a promise to take a tough line with the Salvadoran army. Although the country remained a dangerous place for some time, Salvadoran soldiers exercised greater restraint and anti-press attacks declined.

I returned to El Salvador most recently in 2012. The spectrum of views in the press could not be broader. A former leftist guerrilla whom I knew during the war is now a columnist for a right-wing newspaper. State broadcast outlets produce quality news instead of the government propaganda spread during the war. The son of a slain guerrilla leader runs an online news outlet called ContraPunto. The Jesuit university teaches journalism and communications.

But solidarity is a tenuous thing. When the Salvadoran online outlet El Faro broke several sensitive stories in 2012, a senior government official acknowledged its journalists were at risk from criminal gangs but initially declined to provide any protection. Few in the Salvadoran press corps came to the defense of El Faro. Months later, when El Faro organized an international conference to discuss gang violence and press freedom, few rival Salvadoran journalists were asked to take part. "We were invited to cover it," one told me, "but not to participate."

When people think of journalist security, the use of encrypted files and counter-surveillance techniques often comes to mind. Those practices are important, but security is really a way of thinking, a way of approaching the job. And fostering professional solidarity is crucial to that approach. The Salvadoran journalists of the past paid a terrible price. Today's talented reporters have not been tested as severely, but they would do well to be proactive and speak as one on the issues that endanger them all.

In San Salvador, a memorial to the murdered Jesuits is a reminder of what is at stake. Visitors to the Monsignor Romero Center & Martyrs Museum can see the clothes worn by the priests when they were cut down by automatic rifle fire. The display also includes a set of clear containers. They are filled with darkened blades of grass cut from the campus lawn where the three Jesuits had spilled their blood.


Frank Smyth is CPJ's senior adviser for journalist security and the lead author of the CPJ Journalist Security Guide, published in April 2012. Smyth has reported on armed conflicts, organized crime, and human rights in El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Rwanda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Iraq. Smyth is also founder and executive director of Global Journalist Security, a firm that provides consulting and training services.


Slideshow: Year in Photos

Slideshow: Year in Photos