Facing Digital Threats to Independent Media

Milady Cruz had a dream. She wished for a compassionate approach to journalism in her country. Her two decades of experience in radio and print media steered her to create Diario El Periodista, an outlet committed to principled and accountable reporting in El Salvador.

Milady launched Diario in 2014.

“Nobody told me how to start a business.” Milady recounted. “I had to learn on my own.”

In the years since, she’s been proud of Diario’s coverage, particularly in reporting on vulnerable communities and profiling and featuring young entrepreneurs who have found success. 

However, she never imagined the hard lessons she would encounter along the way.

“As a journalist, you assume you are in control,” she said. “You are not. You are vulnerable. You are exposed to threats, especially when you are investigating sensitive topics.”

With El Salvador’s high crime rate, journalists are subject to threats and intimidation for reporting on gangs and narcotics trafficking.

El Salvador’s constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respects these rights. However, some journalists report receiving threats from people they believed to be government officials after reporting on violence in the country. They note that these experiences can negatively affect journalists’ willingness to report on the security situation.

In addition, in this digital age, media also face the threat of hacking. In June of last year, the Diario’s website, its Twitter account and Milady’s personal email account were hacked. She lost a year’s worth of reporting.

Yet, she did not abandon her dream.

“We had to continue writing stories that transcended our challenges,” she said.

Milady sits in front of a banner. There are flowers in front of her.
Photo credit: Ovidio Sanic Larios

Milady used her life savings to restore the website and rebuild Diario. In November 2016, she participated in a USAID-supported Internews regional bootcamp in Guatemala, where she learned the basics of digital and physical security from leading regional experts and expanded her data and investigative journalism skills.

She attended sessions on data analysis, data journalism, investigative methods, encrypted messaging and mobile security, and with the 28-strong fellowship cohort—from her country as well as Guatemala and Honduras—she built her network.

“I had to wait 19 years to learn how to protect my work and myself properly,” Milady said.

The project enhances freedom of expression in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras by empowering local journalists to develop high-quality investigative reporting. It also provides them with the tools and skills to conduct investigations safely and avoid censorship, security threats and retaliation.

The two-day digital security training session helped her identify the challenges faced by fellow journalists in the region. “I’ve had the opportunity to meet other journalists and learn that they face similar obstacles,” she said.

“I’m not merely a journalist,” Milady said. “I’m a mother. I wish to develop professionally and personally. I want my kids to grow ethically informed.”

“I ended 2016 on a high note,” said Milady, trying to hold back her tears. “I returned home invigorated and excited to confront the challenges. More so now that I have new friends that will support me.”

This story was also published in 2030, a blog from USAID.