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DW Freedom of Speech winner: 'Silence is not an option'

June 19, 2023

Accepting Deutsche Welle's Freedom of Speech award on Monday, El Salvador journalist Oscar Martinez described the dangers he and many colleagues face in the region.

Oscar Martinez speaks to DW at the prize ceremony
During the prize giving ceremony, Oscar Martinez also thanked his family for being a haven, despite persecution and anxietyImage: Florian Goerner/DW

El Salvador journalist Oscar Martinez accepted Deutsche Welle's Freedom of Speech award in Bonn on Monday. The German public broadcaster has been giving out the prize annually since 2015, in recognition of a media person or initiative promoting freedom of expression and press freedom in an outstanding manner.

Martinez, 40, is the editor-in-chief of the Salvadoran online magazine El Faro — The Lighthouse, in English — which started in 1998 as a no-budget project that has since become one of the leading investigative media outlets in Latin America.

Journalists holding the powerful to account in Latin America are faced with serious personal risks, DW's Director General Peter Limbourg explained as he presented the award.

"Freedom of expression and opinion in El Salvador are in peril," he said, praising the El Faro editor and team for "exemplary and courageous journalism" despite grave and growing personal danger.

DW Director-General Limbourg praises FOSA winner Martinez

A litany of persecution

During his acceptance speech, Martinez gave an overview of the kinds of persecution journalists in his region are dealing with.

He spoke of Nicaraguan reporters who had fled in the night after threats, hand in hand with their children, or who had been forced to spend nights on park benches after they left the country. "Others had to leave on boats and they still cry when they remember the last time they looked back on the hills of their own land," he told the audience.

In Guatemala, justice has been hijacked by the country's powerful, he said, noting that, just a few days ago, crusading 66-year-old newspaper founder Jose Ruben Zamora, an outspoken critic of state corruption, was sentenced to six years in prison for alleged money laundering in a trial press freedom groups have described as politically motivated.

Journalist Jose Ruben Zamora Marroquin is escorted by police officers after being sentenced at a court in Guatemala City.
Jose Ruben Zamora founded El Periodico, which has been praised for its investigative reporting exposing corruptionImage: Luis Echeverria/REUTERS

And in Honduras, local journalists regularly investigate links between organized crime and the state or business elites. For this, they are surveilled, threatened and harassed, Martinez reported. Three Honduran journalists were killed last year.

"One of them was taken out of his house, gagged and then executed in the middle of the street, in the capital," Martinez said. "What makes these people get up out of bed every morning, say goodbye to their children and go out to work in a country where they can be killed for doing their jobs?" he asked. 

Thousands arrested in El Salvador

Describing the work of reporters in his own country, Martinez said the situation was becoming more difficult all the time as El Salvador slides away from democracy and toward dictatorship.

Under President Nayib Bukele, the government has enforced a state of emergency since March 2022, ostensibly to rein in criminal gangs. The state of emergency has given the government sweeping new powers and led to the imprisonment of 68,000 people. Its continued renewal has been widely criticized, including by the United Nations.

Soldiers and police act with impunity under El Salvador's state of emergency, Martinez explained.

"Just two weeks ago, the police chief said that they would start acting against journalists now, so that the people would soon see how we could be prosecuted and imprisoned," Martinez said.

"And yet, never in this century has Salvadoran journalism uncovered so many cases of corruption, impunity and state violence. Why do all these journalists continue to research El Salvador's most powerful," he asked, "when they know that there will come a day when the powerful want them locked up for years in those deadly prisons?"

Soldiers and police near a small town in northern El Salvador after gang members had killed a member of the national police there.
El Salvador's state of emergency was originally announced in 2022 to deal with gang killingsImage: Salvador Melendez/AP/picture alliance

The answers his colleagues around the region would give to that question would certainly differ, Martinez conceded, and doubtless there would also be a wide variety of personal motivations.

"But," he added, "I am certain that there is one answer that those in this Central American guild of journalists — of which I am so proud to be a member — will all share: The more darkness there is, the more need for journalism." 

The Central American Network of Journalists was founded in November last year to protect and advocate for journalists in the region.

"Silence is not an option," Martinez concluded, thanking his colleagues at El Faro and in other neighboring lands for their courage. "No matter the cost, it is not our choice and never will be."

This is the ninth time that Deutsche Welle has awarded its Freedom of Speech award, which is given out during the broadcaster's annual Global Media Forum. The first recipient, in 2015, was Saudi human rights activist and blogger Raif Badawi. Last year the award honored Associated Press journalist and novelist Mstyslav Chernov and freelance photojournalist Evgeniy Maloletka for their work covering Russia's war in Ukraine.

Freedom of Speech Award Ceremony 2023

Edited by: Ruairi Casey