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El Salvador expels prominent Mexican journalist, draws sharp criticism from human rights groups

Mexican journalist Daniel Lizárraga, an editor of the Salvadoran digital news publication El Faro, prepares to board a plane in San Salvador on July 8. (Rodrigo Sura/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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The Salvadoran government has expelled an editor of the country’s most prominent digital news publication, El Faro, saying that authorities could not verify the Mexican journalist’s work credentials, the newspaper’s founder said Thursday.

El Faro said in an editorial on its site that immigration authorities had denied Daniel Lizárraga his work permit and temporary residence “due to his inability to prove he is an editor or journalist,” despite the journalist’s long and successful career.

Carlos Dada, founder and director of El Faro, said in an interview that the decision came as part of a “serious escalation” of government attacks against the online newspaper and other Salvadoran media outlets. He added that these actions “speak of the nature of a government who is against any criticism to its ever-growing power.”

Dada said that though serious, the expulsion was not entirely surprising. “What is new is having an entire political machine operating against us” he said, adding that immigration officials showed up at Lizárraga’s house Tuesday and told him he had five days to leave the country.

He left El Salvador on Thursday, Dada said.

El Faro’s editorial also accused President Nayib Bukele of launching a campaign of “harassment, attacks, censorship and threats” against the publication for over a year as a response to its investigations into government corruption.

“The true reason for his expulsion isn’t that he cannot prove he’s a journalist, but rather that he’s a journalist specialized in investigating corruption,” El Faro said in the editorial.

The Salvadoran government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch, strongly condemned the decision, arguing it sends a “dangerous” message to the press.

“The decision was meant to send a clear message to intimidate the press, and at the same time, it reveals the danger that independent media represent for Bukele, who is looking for ways to prevent the media from documenting abuses of power and corruption,” Vivanco said in an interview.

The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) also condemned the government’s actions.

“With this type of action, they aim to harass journalists and the independent media. It is about sending a loud and clear message that the government is not willing to be questioned,” Carlos Jornet, president of IAPA’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, said in a statement.

Bukele, who was elected in 2019, enjoys broad public support but has drawn criticism for resisting U.S. anti-corruption efforts, and he has been accused of an authoritarian power grab after his party ousted the country’s attorney general and its top judges.

Human rights groups condemned those actions, and some have described him as a “millennial autocrat.”

Vivanco described Bukele, former mayor of the nation’s capital, as a “despotic” leader who “seeks to concentrate all political power in his own hands, including the judicial power, and now the media.”

“He sees the media that applauds the government actions as the only legitimate ones, and those who criticize him, as enemies who should be treated as such,” he added.

El Faro is known for its investigative work into government corruption, not only of the current regime but of past administrations, as well as extensive coverage of gang violence, immigration and human rights violations.

Lizárraga is an award-winning journalist and editor who co-authored an investigation into the former first lady of Mexico, Angelica Rivera, who bought a luxurious mansion in Mexico City on credit from a close ally of former president Enrique Peña Nieto, who had received millions of dollars’ worth in government contracts.

The bombshell story won the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Award from the New Journalism Foundation, and a National Journalism Award in Mexico. He is also a professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City.

Dada said El Faro has suffered retaliation for investigations into government corruption and abuse of power, which he said prompted several audits on the newspaper and accusations of tax evasion and money laundering.

Journalists, including Dada himself, have been subject to surveillance, with drones flying up to homes, he said, and others have received repeated death threats.

In February, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which investigates allegations of human rights abuses under the Organization of American States, found that 34 workers at El Faro were “at serious, urgent risk of suffering irreparable harm to their human rights,” and urged the government of El Salvador to adopt “necessary measures to preserve the life and personal integrity” of the journalists.

In the report, the IACHR said it reached its conclusion after gathering information that suggested the harassment, threats and intimidation the journalists allegedly experienced “were intended not only to intimidate them but also to prevent them from going about their work as journalists.”

Among the evidence sent to the IACHR, El Faro representatives said they have been denied entry to news conferences and been subject to smear campaigns through anonymous articles published in media controlled by the state.

“But all of the regime’s efforts to silence the press, including Daniel Lizárraga’s expulsion, are futile,” El Faro said in the editorial.

The incident follows a wider regional trend of attacks against the media. In Nicaragua, journalists have been jailed amid a political crackdown ahead of a November election.

“It is yet another step in the escalating persecution of the free press not only in El Salvador, but in other nations in the region where there seems to be a pandemic of censorship and harassment and other growing signs of an authoritarian regression,” said Leopoldo Maldonado, regional director for Mexico and Central America at Article 19, a British press freedom organization.

“It is deeply concerning,” he added.

Moments before boarding a flight to Mexico on Thursday morning, Lizárraga said that the government’s orders were another attack and “a way to harass El Faro, yet again.”

“It seems like they are willing to do anything,” he said in a video posted on El Faro’s Twitter account. “But they should know without a doubt that they will not silence us. It won’t happen.”

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