Friday, September 13, 2019
Journalists in El Salvador are in danger of becoming targets of the violent gangs they cover. Free Press Unlimited partner Fundación Latitudes gives safety training to the local journalists who are most at risk.

One evening after work, Juan Carlos Díaz was making his way home in the east of El Salvador when a car stopped. The men and women inside offered him a ride and Díaz gladly accepted. He’d had a long day covering the arrest of a gang leader for a regional TV channel. Public transport was not running at this time of night.

“When we got to the highway, one of the men grabbed me by the throat and another took my hands,” Díaz recalls. They told him they were not happy he covered the gang leader’s capture. “They took me to a rural road which was completely dark. I thought they would kill or torture me there. One of them asked me, what if I hurt you? What if I cut your throat? Then suddenly they changed their minds. They let me get out of the car and told me to run.”

Today, Díaz, now 33, works as a regional correspondent for El Salvadorean national newspaper La Prensa Gráfica. His main focus is crime. “In the interior [of El Salvador], homicide scenes are common. [As a journalist] you see a lot of violent scenes,” he says.

'Everybody knows each other'

Violent crime is still pervasive in the Central American country and is putting journalists at risk. In recent years, several journalists were murdered or physically attacked, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Journalists who work in remote areas are especially vulnerable. Díaz: “You’re closer to the people you cover. Everybody knows each other. In larger cities, it’s easier to stay anonymous. Here, everybody knows you were the journalist who covered a certain story.”

Since 2015, our partner Fundación Latitudes offers safety training to journalists from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In June 2019, a new batch of 14 El Salvadorean journalists completed the first module in the Riesgo Cruzado programme. This time, the course was specifically aimed at journalists living in the country’s interior.

Self-defence and flak vests

“Regional journalism is growing and developing, but people living [in rural areas] do not have the same access to training and run different kinds of risks [than people in large cities],” says Edgar Romero, a co-founder of Fundación Latitudes. “They are more vulnerable and have fewer tools to recognise danger.”

In the basic course, journalists, including Díaz, were equipped with skills ranging from self-defence to maneuvering in a crossfire. With support from Free Press Unlimited, Fundación Latitudes will also set up regional hubs, where reporters can seek security advice, get affordable insurance and borrow flak vests and helmets for dangerous assignments.

Juan Carlos Díaz receives safety training. Credit: Imágenes Libres

Juan Carlos Díaz practises self-defence during the Riesgo Cruzado basic course in June 2019.

Threatened by a politician

Gangs are not the only threat to journalists. Brenda Arévalo was among the participants for the basic safety training. A 23-year-old journalist with community media outlet Izcanal in eastern El Salvador, she was recently threatened by a local politician after publishing a critical report about him: “He told me, you will pay for this report. He said he knew how many sisters I had and where my father worked. I was afraid that because of me, he would hurt my family.”

After finishing the course, Arévalo started implementing the techniques she learned immediately. “On Sunday we finished the course. On Monday, I was on a bus watching who was sitting around me,” she says. “The course taught us to be more vigilant. People might be watching you, but you don’t notice. We also learned how to defend ourselves with simple steps. These skills can save our lives in some cases.”

Arévalo is in regular contact with the journalists who were trained with her. They exchange experiences and offer support. “I know that if we meet while covering a story, something happens and I freeze, they will look out for me,” she says.

Safety and health

The day after Díaz was held by gang members, he walked into his office planning to resign. He ended up staying and now, several years later, he is still a driven journalist. Thanks to Fundación Latitudes, Díaz has now received safety training for the first time.

“I take more precautions now. When I arrive somewhere, I make a scan of what’s around me and if there are people who could form a danger. I’ve also learned how our safety is related to our general health. How to release stress and how to deal with psychological issues – how to cope with situations like [when I was held],” he says.

These skills will serve him in what he hopes will be a long career: “I want to keep developing myself as a journalist. Us journalists, we don’t work to buy a nice house. We work to create change in our country. And El Salvador needs change.”

Photography: Imágenes Libres