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El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele delivers his annual address to the nation before Congress, in San Salvador, El Salvador, Tuesday, June 1. © 2021 AP Photo/Salvador Melendez

(Washington DC) – The government of President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador has proposed a “foreign agents” bill that would severely restrict the work of independent journalists and civil society organizations, Human Rights Watch said today.

The bill, which is currently being discussed in the Legislative Assembly, would require entities and people who receive funding or support from abroad to register as a “foreign agent” with the Interior Ministry and would severely limit the activities in which these organizations can engage. President Bukele’s two-thirds majority in the Assembly has repeatedly taken actions that undermine judicial independence and undercut accountability.

“Since Bukele and his coalition eliminated virtually all institutional checks on his power, nongovernmental institutions and independent media are among the few voices in El Salvador in a position to hold the government to account,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “If this bill is passed, Bukele’s administration will have a legal excuse to intimidate or effectively curtail the operations of independent civil society and media groups.”

The “foreign agents” bill would require any person or entity that “directly or indirectly” receives funding from abroad, as well as those who work under the “control” of people abroad or represent their “interests,” to register as a “foreign agent.” Those that don’t could face fines and a cancelation of their legal status.

The bill also underscores that such people or entities might face “criminal responsibility” for actions that threaten national security or for “other duly proven” actions. The bill would also impose a 40 percent tax on “each financial transaction, disbursement, transfer or any other transaction,” including donations, that organizations considered “foreign agents” receive from abroad.

Under the bill, those registered as “foreign agents” are barred from carrying out “political activities” that aim to alter “public order” or that “endanger or threaten national security or the social and political stability of the country.”

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR), both ratified by El Salvador, laws may only limit the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association when necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate goal, such as to protect national security or the rights of others. The proposed bill includes multiple overbroad provisions that are inconsistent with international human rights law and could be easily used to arbitrarily undercut the work of independent civil society and media groups and affect their access to funding, Human Rights Watch said.

The bill follows an announcement by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), on November 4, 2021 of  a “five-year, $300 million initiative to empower local organizations in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to address the drivers of irregular migration to the US.”

The “foreign agents” bill also follows a series of measures by the Bukele government to intimidate and harass civil society groups, Human Rights Watch said.

On May 18, lawmakers created a commission to investigate the allocation of public funds to non-governmental organizations in what appears to be an effort to intimidate them. The commission, consisting of pro-government lawmakers and allies, has not publicly announced any results, but some of its members have accused nongovernmental organizations of being “corrupt,” without presenting evidence to support their claims.

In September 2020, the Bukele administration announced a criminal investigation against the highly regarded media outlet El Faro, for alleged “money laundering.” The announcement, which the government did not support with evidence, came a few weeks after El Faro reported that President Bukele had negotiated with MS-13, the country’s largest gang, to grant members prison privileges in exchange for a commitment to lower the homicide rate and support the president’s political party in the February 2021 legislative elections.

Human Rights Watch has documented that other countries, such as Russia and Nicaragua, have used similar “foreign agents” laws to silence civil society. The European Parliament has condemned Russia’s law–which is the subject of multiple challenges before the European Court of Human Rights–as a tool to stifle dissent, and the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights has made clear that it violates international norms.

Nicaragua’s bill, passed in October 2020, has provisions similar to those in the Salvadoran bill. It created onerous requirements for nongovernmental groups to register with the Interior Ministry, forcing some to suspend their activities in the country.

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