- Freedom of Expression in El Salvador: The Struggle for Human Rights and Democracy
During my first trip to El Salvador, in July 1980, the managing editor and a photographer for a small, independent newspaper, La Crónica del Pueblo, were abducted in San Salvador in broad daylight. Their mutilated, dismembered bodies appeared the next day. The clear message of the killings was lost on no one; the newspaper stopped publishing. That same year, the editor of the country's only other independent daily, a man named Jorge Pinto, survived three assassination attempts before going into exile. His paper, El Independiente, finally shut down after a powerful bomb destroyed its premises. Indeed, according to the pioneering human rights office of the Catholic archdiocese, Socorro Jurídico, between January 1980 and June 1981, 17 news offices and radio stations were bombed or machine-gunned, 12 journalists were killed, and 3 disappeared. Such was the state of press freedom in El Salvador as the country descended into 12 years of brutal and pitiless conflict.
The assault on civil society over decades of prewar and wartime repression is a useful starting point for evaluating Lawrence Ladutke's book. Ladutke is primarily concerned with how limits on freedom of expression impeded Salvadoran citizens from fully participating in the effort to construct democracy and work for reform following the signing of historic peace accords between the Salvadoran government and guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Ladutke takes issue with explanations of the Salvadoran peace accords that ascribe primary importance either to international factors (the end of the Cold War, the respective roles of the United Nations and the U.S. government) or to elites (government and FMLN leaders). Instead, he focuses on the actions of Salvadoran citizens "to pressure the Salvadoran government to fulfill its promises under the accords and to take other actions necessary to protect human rights" (p. 6) His hypothesis is that human rights are better protected "when citizens and civil society institutions can and do exercise their right to freedom of expression in support of human rights" (p. 14); and he explores the role of El Salvador's dominant media in advancing or undermining the effort to ensure compliance with the peace accords. [End Page 200]
Ladutke takes as a theoretical point of departure Alfred Stepan's observation that "a complex dialectic of regime concessions and societal conquests" underlies transitions from authoritarianism to democracy. Even though civil society organizations were excluded from the negotiations leading to the peace accords, Ladutke wonders to what extent "democratic forces" could achieve some "ownership" of the agreement and turn the process of implementing the accords into a societal conquest.
For the most part, albeit with certain important and partial exceptions, Ladutke illustrates the variety of ways the dominant media helped thwart reforms. These were principally to ignore information and stories critical of the government and military while regularly printing stories parroting their false and distorted claims, but also to sensationalize the problem of postwar criminality, thereby contributing to a climate hostile to due process reforms and curbs on the military's internal security role. Ladutke argues, moreover, that postwar impunity for those who had violated human rights created vast problems for the consolidation of democratic practices, from a resurgence of death squad and "social cleansing" killings to intimidation, threats, smear campaigns, and physical attacks aimed against journalists and others who attempted to exercise their freedom of expression.
The most valuable chapter of the book deals with the daunting challenges to alternative or independent media in the postwar period. Few have questioned the expansion of press freedom as a result of the peace accords—the baseline, after all, was exceptionally low—but relatively less attention has been paid to the obstacles, including the industry's economic structure. Ladutke discusses the concentration of ownership in the television sector, for example, which allowed the privately owned Telecorporación Salvadoreña to exclude two smaller competing stations, the feisty Channel 12 and the...