El Salvador: Speech by World Press Freedom Hero Carlos Dada at IPI WoCo
The International Press Institute (IPI) publishes today the speech delivered by Salvadoran journalist Carlos Dada, founder of El Faro, as he accepted the World Press Freedom Hero Award at the 2022 IPI World Congress at Columbia University in New York on September 9, 2022.
Thank you, members of the Board of Directors of the International Press Institute and International Media Support, for this great honour.
I am particularly grateful, and I believe I am speaking on behalf of all my colleagues from Mexico and Central America, for the statement you issued today expressing your concerns about the situation of journalists in the region. International and public support is essential protection for us.
It is very special for me to share this award with the late Shireen Abu Akleh, a journalist of my generation, with a solid career of excellence that spanned decades. She was killed by an Israeli soldier in the Jenin refugee camp, and her funeral was later interrupted by a raid on mourners ordered and carried out by Israeli authorities. His death remains unpunished. To his family: my solidarity and my support.
Shireen is a true martyr of journalism awaiting justice.
Journalism is one of the riskiest professions. But we can’t just talk about risk in journalism as if we were talking about racing cars or climbing Mount Everest. No.
Shireen’s death was no accident, nor were the murders of Jamal Khashoggi, Javier Valdez, Daphne Caruana, Angel Gahona, Miroslava Breach, Dom Phillips, the more than two thousand journalists killed since 1992 .they have paid the ultimate price for informing other human beings, for speaking truth to power, for exposing corruption, for treading in the territory of organized crime or investigating injustices against disadvantaged people, crimes against the environment, against humanity. Most of these deaths go unpunished.
I come from Latin America, where about 40% of these deaths have occurred. In Mexico alone, a journalist is killed every fortnight. And now, after barely three decades of erratic democratic life, authoritarianism is back in Central America and, with it, attacks on the press. Authoritarian populists love monologues and can’t stand alternate versions of their narrative. They cannot allow the truth to surface.
I am the third Central American to receive this award. The first, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, was assassinated half a century ago by the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua. The second is José Rubén Zamora, the courageous founder of El Periodico in Guatemala, arrested a few weeks ago, accused of money laundering. He is still in prison as I speak, and I join those in strong calls for his release.
This seems to be the fate of the heroes of journalism: to be killed, imprisoned or exiled.
I am not a hero. I don’t even want to be a hero. In fact, I don’t know any journalist who wants to become one. We must work without threats, without surveillance, without harassment. Without fatal consequences. We shouldn’t mourn colleagues, speak out against unjust imprisonments, or leave our roots behind. We must identify those responsible and demand that they be punished. No journalist should be forced to make heroic decisions to do their job. And yet, the pressure increases every day.
In Nicaragua, the Ortega regime shut down 54 media outlets, imprisoned 11 media professionals and forced into exile nearly 200 journalists and editors, many of whom are accused of money laundering. In Guatemala, in addition to Jose Ruben Zamora, a dozen reporters and editors have also been charged or imprisoned. Others chose exile to avoid it.
In my country, El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele controls the executive and legislative branches and, thanks to a coup, he also controls the Supreme Court, all the courts in the country and the Attorney General’s office. He made the army and the police his personal guards. In the past four months alone, he has jailed more than 50,000 people without warrants, accusing them, without evidence, of gang ties.
He has declared war on his critics and has been very successful in silencing most of those voices, but journalism remains a big obstacle to their strategic monologue.
It was therefore not surprising that in an address to the nation broadcast by all the television stations, he showed my picture and accused me of money laundering. He has publicly led smear campaigns against many other colleagues and some have already opted for exile or professional retraining.
Last year, with the expertise of organizations Access Now and Citizen Lab, we discovered that the phones of 22 members of El Faro had been infected with the Israeli software Pegasus. Operators bugged my smartphone for 167 days. They activated my camera, my microphone and my geolocation at will. They had access to all my chats, videos and photos. They operated almost an entire year inside the phone of Carlos Martinez, a colleague of El Faro.
Besides the personal burden of knowing that the people who wish us harm have the photos and addresses of our loved ones, it has also had enormous professional consequences. As soon as we made it public, we lost a significant amount of sources. Nobody wanted to talk to us anymore, for fear of suffering reprisals from a government that controls all the institutions.
The regime followed us physically, threatened us in various ways and sent drones into our homes, one of them even entered my apartment through the window. We have six ongoing investigations against us, four of which relate to taxation and money laundering and at least two criminal investigations. Congress has passed laws that criminalize journalism and provide 15-year sentences for any reporter or editor who quotes gang members or publishes gang symbols.
For 25 years that El Faro publishes, we have never been confronted with such threats. And I’m sure this situation will only get worse as we continue to report and investigate. In a way, they succeeded, by making a story out of us and pushing us to invest a lot of resources in defending ourselves, thus depriving us of some ability to investigate them. We are aware of this.
The world we want to be part of needs an independent press that speaks truth to power and puts its methods at the service of truth and a better understanding of why we live as we live, as societies and countries.
But it is increasingly difficult to renew our faith in journalism. It is a very frustrating practice. We want things to change for the better, with the speed and high impact of the Watergate scandal, but that rarely happens. Yesterday, in this same conference, Dmitry Muratov declared the death of independent journalism in Russia. His country is worse now than when Novaya Gazeta started publishing. We are not far.
El Faro was the first Salvadoran media born in democracy. Now democracy is almost completely gone, and yet, thanks to an innovative, modern and greased propaganda machine, Mr. Bukele is the Latin American president with the highest popular support, which raises a paradox: the communities we serve do not support us.
Two questions naturally follow: First: Does journalism make a difference?
It may sound too complacent, but I believe that in many places, as bad as things are, they would be worse if it weren’t for the work of good journalists.
And second: why do we do what we do?
This is a serious question to ask in the midst of the crisis that many of our colleagues around the world are going through. But we have to stand up for our reasons for doing journalism, and that means each of us has to look deep within and around ourselves and find those reasons. We all have the right to decide not to do journalism anymore, because the price to pay for doing so is getting higher and higher. It may actually be the sensible and healthy decision to make.
But if you decide to continue, you should know that silence is not an option. Our word is our power, our contribution to our communities and our destiny. And we must use our word to break the monologues of power. We cannot give up the search for truth, through a method of verification and the use of language to communicate our findings and stimulate public debate. We must use our words against silence. We must use our words to defend the truth.
Once again, thank you very much for this immense honor, which I accept on behalf of all my colleagues in Central America, who stand on the edge of heroism every day as they continue to practice journalism.
On their behalf, thank you for your support.
Read in Spanish
The World Press Freedom Hero Award honors journalists who have made a significant contribution to advancing press freedom, especially in the face of great personal risk. Launched by the International Press Institute (IPI) in 2000, the prize is now awarded in partnership with International Media Support (IMS).
“Silence is not an option. Our word is our power, our contribution to our communities and our destiny. And we must use our word to break the monologues of power.
—Director of El Faro @CarlosDada after receiving this year’s World Press Freedom Hero Award.https://t.co/9B0hVavcUO
— El Faro English (@elfaroenglish) September 15, 2022