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El Salvador’s congress has authorized 10 to 15-year prison terms for news media that reproduce or broadcast gang messages, prompting accusations of censorship from press freedom groups.

Tuesday night’s vote was the latest in a wave of legislative action against gangs after 62 suspected gang killings on March 26 led President Nayib Bukele to seek and be granted a state of emergency. Tough measures against imprisoned gang members and increased prison sentences followed, along with the arrest of some 6,000 people accused of gang membership.

But the new law broadens Bukele’s offensive against the press, another of his frequent targets.

“We consider these reforms a clear attempt to censor the media,” the Journalists Association of El Salvador said in a statement on Wednesday. “Prohibiting journalism from reporting the reality in which thousands of people live in these gang-controlled communities… will create an illusion that is not true to the truth.

The law states that “radio, television, print or digital media” incurs 10 to 15 years in prison for “the reproduction or transmission to the general population of messages or statements originating or presumably originating from the said criminal groups, which could generate anxiety and panic in the population”.

The measure also provides for prison sentences of 10 to 15 years for painting the type of graffiti commonly used to mark gang territory in neighborhoods in El Salvador.

Bukele has taken an increasingly combative stance with anyone who dares to question his government and recently claimed that human rights NGOs, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and George’s Open Society Foundations Soros are gang associates.

Under the state of emergency, the government restricted freedom of association, suspended the right to be informed of one’s rights upon arrest, and denied access to lawyers. A suspect can now be held for 15 days without charge instead of 72 hours. Imprisoned gang members have their meals reduced to twice a day, are not allowed out of their cells, and have their mattresses taken away.

Marcela Pineda, a New Ideas party MP from Bukele, said on Tuesday: “With these reforms, we are telling the gangsters that they cannot send audios or text strings to instill fear in the population.”

Bukele had touched on this theme earlier in the day, saying there were rumors that gangs might retaliate to the crackdown by attacking civilians. He threatened to starve imprisoned gang members if they did.

The press association also noted that there have been reports suggesting that Bukele’s administration, like other administrations before it, made deals with gangs to reduce the murder rate and provide political support. in exchange for other benefits. The US Treasury Department echoed the allegations in December, saying Bukele’s government had bought gang support with financial benefits and privileges for imprisoned leaders. Bukele has vehemently denied the charges.

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