El Salvador:“Foreign Agents” bill would restrict freedom of expression & association if passed into law

Global civil society alliance CIVICUS expresses serious concerns over a ‘Foreign Agents’ bill proposed by the government of El Salvador which would give the executive ample powers to stifle civil society and independent media.

If passed, the law would limit legitimate activities of organisations and individuals who receive funding or support from abroad. It would require them to register as a ‘foreign agent’ with the Interior Ministry and would impose a 40% tax on some international funding. The bill, which is expected to be approved by the Nuevas Ideas-controlled Legislative Assembly this week, broadly prohibits organisations from carrying out activities “for political or other purposes, with the intent of altering the public order or jeopardising national security or the social or political stability of the country.” It also enables the cancellation of the legal status of organisations failing to comply with its provisions and may lead to prison sentences for ‘foreign agents’ who “alter the public order” – terms often used to refer to participation in and organisation of protests. The adoption of this legislation would be a major blow to Salvadoran’s fundamental freedoms, curtailing the space for civil society.

Similar laws associating civil society actors with allegations of foreign interference were implemented in countries such as Nicaragua and Russia. Introduced in the name of increasing accountability, these laws were later used to shut down organisations and persecute government critics. We therefore urge lawmakers and public authorities to reject this bill and promote an enabling environment for civil society, including through laws that genuinely increase transparency for the sector. We also urge public authorities to refrain from making stigmatising statements against human rights defenders and civil society actors.

“This draft ‘Foreign Agents Law’ introduces requirements that could be used in a discretionary manner by public authorities to control and limit the work of civil society and the press. The misuse of such legislation would impose a serious setback for human rights. We call on the government of El Salvador to ensure that all laws and policies that regulate civil society guarantee the rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression,” said Débora Leão, CIVICUS Monitor’s Americas Researcher.

We are also concerned by efforts to undermine judicial independence and the separation of powers in El Salvador, in particular with the removal of the Attorney General and five magistrates of the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber. This action makes the threat to civil society and media even more concerning, as it reveals a concerted effort to eliminate checks on the executive and silence key actors holding decision-makers to account.

Background

President Nayib Bukele took office in June 2019, after running as a political outsider. He was criticised for his authoritarian decision-making and faced resistance from both the Legislative Assembly and the justice system when attempting to implement controversial policies that affected human rights. However, public support for the government remained high and Bukele’s allies gained a super majority in the legislature in February 2021. This was followed by quick undermining of the separation of powers: newly elected lawmakers replaced five judges in the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber, who in turn published a resolution enabling consecutive re-election - previously banned by the Constitution. Since then, civil society has been excluded from participating in the legislative process and government allies have sought to make regressive legal changes.


The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates civic space – the space for civil society – in El Salvador as obstructed.

 

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