Overview

The political transition experienced by El Salvador with the Peace Accords signed on 16 January, 1992, meant an advancement for the freedom of expression. Diverse actors from political life had the chance to express their ideas without fear of explicit repression by the state. New communication media surged and traditional press consolidated. The main emphasis of the negotiation process between the government and Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front - FMLN), focused on the right to express opinions freely, thus displacing concerns about demands for structural changes in the media landscape. In addition, this democratic opening occurred simultaneously with the development of structural adjustment policies, which promoted the privatisation of the telecommunications sector and the transition from a profound control of the state over the media towards "savage deregulation."  

The idea of a minimal state with few interventions on the media system was consolidated in 1992, which has contributed to a fertile ground for the media concentration in the hands of the private sector of communication, under the premise that “the best law is the non-existent one.” This scenario has impacted the authentic exercise of freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Although some laws and regulations about media institutions have been changed, especially for radio and television, the advancement in favor of a public sense of the media is still in a inception phase, with few solid structures and still far from the international standard set by the United Nations and the Interamerican System.  

In consequence, the commercial media sector has reached a strong development especially in the audiovisual media system, where television has a dominant role. According to a report from the Superintendency of Competition of El Salvador (2016), terrestrial television is a relevant market in the country due to the national reach of the service, as well as the content commercialisation and advertisers linked to the industry. In addition, the market structure of the open television is highly concentrated; according to the same report, there are a total of 42 licensed channels, of which 35 focus on the private or commercial activity and the other 7 to public, social or non-commercial activities. Even though there are several commercial players, their relevance as economic agents is not proportional. Therefore in El Salvador, we witness a media system that is not diverse nor plural.

Another topic that explains the strengthening of oligopolies is that the mass media market is small and has faced continuous economic crisis, which makes the struggle for advertisers more acute and confrontational. Print media have been affected the most by the crisis, due to their low levels of consumption compared to audiovisual media. According to the Public Opinion Institute from the Central America University José Simeón Cañas (2012), only 3.9 percent  of the population consumes news through newspapers, while 88.1 percent  does so through television, which has made print media unprofitable, forcing close links with political and economic elites to guarantee their sustainability (Pérez and Carballo, 2013).  

However, the strong development of the commercial media and the limited state intervention did not imply a distancing between the political elites of the media system. On the contrary, a close relationship was generated between powerful economic groups owners of mass media and the groups of political power (Rockwell and Noreene, 2003, Becerra and Mastrini, 2009, Perez and Carballo, 2013). This shows that "the development of private mass media markets does not automatically eliminate political parallelism" (Hallin and Mancini, 2008, p.196). In this order of ideas, it can be concluded that there is a high level of political parallelism in the Salvadoran media system. The media contents reflect ideologies and evident political biases that are explained by the structural links between the political, media and economic elites. In addition, part of the audience expects the journalist to be an editorial guide and not an independent mediator in matters of public interest. As a result, the presence of "persons directly related to the ownership of the media that embark on a political career, including presidential candidates, some of whom are elected" (Becerra and Mastrini, 2009, p. 178) can be identified in the recent history of El Salvador, as in the cases of former presidents Elías Antonio Saca and Mauricio Funes; the first one is in prison indicted of corruption during his term, and the second exiled in Nicaragua for reasons of political persecution.  

This context of media concentration and high political parallelism determines the journalistic exercise that takes place in the midst of a high vulnerability situation. This has generated little space for advocacy on the part of the journalistic guild, which makes it  difficult to pursue an independent journalistic exercise focused on the public interest. The low professionalisation of the journalistic activity in the country can be explained by the little interest that exists in the academia on the specific professional standard guidelines for the journalistic activity, which is increased by the weakness of the Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES in Spanish), that plays a small representative role, agglutinating but without a real influence. In addition, the high political polarisation in the country also impacts on the guild, which is divided and with little chance of becoming a real check and balances system to the other actors in the political and media system (Carballo and Cristancho, 2014).  

The precariousness in which the journalistic activity is performed in the country, threatens the freedom of the press, according to the Freedom of the Press annual report from The Freedom House (2017). El Salvador is ranked 47th and labeled as "partially free". This grade is consistent with the high levels of self-censorship associated with a survival-oriented and ideological submission. In the study “Between censorship and discrimination, a threatened Central America”, 67 percent of the journalists interviewed expressed that they have been the subject of some type of censorship and 50 percent  acknowledged that they practice self-censorship, which demonstrates very little plural dynamic within the media companies. As noted before, the state has favored large media entrepreneurs who enjoy privileges, which has led to a strong pressure from the market and political elites over the journalistic activity. Regarding the agents that generate censorship those identified are the owners of the media, advertisers and public officials. In addition, half of the information professionals have received aggressions of different kinds and three out of every ten communicators have suffered some restriction to the information. 

To conclude, in El Salvador the journalistic activity is performed in a context characterised by high levels of censorship and self-censorship, partially explained by the links between political, media and economic elites. Additionally, the lack of clarity on the regulation of the advertising from the state enables the pressure from the government over media companies and journalists.