Fundamentalist groups in El Salvador have escalated their media attacks against the “Freedom for the 17” campaign to the level of threats of criminal charges against campaign spokespeople. “Freedom for the 17” works to free from prison 17 women unjustly incarcerated on abortion-related charges. The campaign has responded to the media attacks with a principled stance asserting its legal and moral rights to its work.
Morena Herrera, president of the group leading the campaign, the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion), and one of the individuals directly targeted by the media attacks, asserted in a Skype interview with Rewire that, “It is not a crime to speak, and it is not a crime to fight against an unjust law or talk about why the law is unjust.” The fundamentalists “want to silence us, but it is not working.”
The latest round of attacks began with yet another calumnious newspaper column by Julia Regina de Calderon, president of Si a la Vida (Right to Life), published by the right-wing controlled mainstream daily El Diario de Hoy. De Calderon cited an interview with Herrera on the work and the goals of the group. She identifies Herrera as a feminist and an ex-guerrilla in the 1980s Salvadoran civil war who fights for the decriminalization of abortion, accurate descriptors, but apparently chosen to provoke ire among her followers.
She fanned the fundamentalist flames by quoting Herrera saying, “We [the Agrupación], with the help of lawyers, offer them [women with abortion-related charges] the possibility of accessing justice.” De Calderon also notes that Herrera describes the international funding and legal support the Agrupación has received to promote “reflections on religious fundamentalism in the society.”
De Calderon followed those comments with partial quotes from the Salvadoran Criminal Code: “Article 136 of the Criminal Code says that ‘Any person who induces a woman or provides for her the … means … to perform an abortion, will be punished with a prison term of two to five years.'”
“Nevertheless,” de Calderon added, the Agrupación “promotes abortion with national campaigns such as that of the 17 cases in which the mothers were convicted for murdering their children already born, although this has nothing to do with abortion.” [Translation by author.]
Article 136 in its entirety states: “Any person who induces a woman or provides for her the economic means or other type of means so that she has an abortion performed, shall be condemned to prison for two to five years.”
Herrera says the Agrupación interprets de Calderon’s statements as a threat of criminal prosecution against those who speak out against the absolute prohibition on abortion. She also points out that the word “induce” is not defined in the law, and neither is “abortion” nor “other type of means.” De Calderon accuses the Agrupación of “promoting” abortion, which is also left undefined, but Herrera explains that what the Agrupación wants to promote is a national dialogue around the consequences of the absolute criminalization of abortion.
This is not a war over shades of meaning in words. There is a justifiable concern that the powerful oligarchy could utilize their preferred interpretations as justification for incarcerating spokespeople for the Agrupación. Herrera said there is a “lack of confidence” in the workings of the judicial system in the country. Although the Salvadoran Constitution includes freedom of expression, no one in the Agrupación doubts there is a possibility of criminal charges being levied.
Even with de Calderon’s latest column, El Diario de Hoy’s defamation of the Agrupación was not finished. Two days after the column, the newspaper published a three-page story titled, “Thousands of Dollars to Finance Campaign to Decriminalize Abortion,” in its Sunday edition, displaying photos of an odd assortment of funding applications and financial documents from the Agrupación, and implying misuse of allegedly exorbitant sums of international funding for the purpose of promoting abortion. The Agrupación decided they needed to respond with a press conference.
The press release reads in part:
We express our concern as we face the direct and indirect threats on the part of fundamentalist groups against the defenders of sexual and reproductive rights in El Salvador, directed principally at the spokespeople for the campaign “Freedom for the 17.” These threats have taken place through repeated opinion articles in the mass media oriented at delegitimizing and smearing the reputation of the work that human rights defenders carry out.
And it demanded that the Salvadoran government “guarantee protective measures and security for the defenders of sexual and reproductive rights in El Salvador, and that it create a favorable environment so that the defenders can exercise their right to defend the human rights of women.”
The tone and content of the press conference challenged the newspaper on its less-than-evidence-based reporting and once again stated the Agrupación’s desire for a civil, serious, and scientifically based conversation on the impacts of the criminalization of abortion.
In a follow-up summary of the press conference, to which Rewire has been given access, the Agrupación addressed the accusations of financial impropriety, noting that the information published by the newspaper came from internal documents and from unfunded grant applications, but not actual funding contracts.
The Agrupación wrote that it was willing to accept that the coverage of the financial questions “is the product of a genuine interest of El Diario de Hoy in informing the citizenry about the problem of the absolute criminalization of abortion in El Salvador. Nevertheless, it concerns us that this is done using erroneous data.”
That same document also challenged head-on El Diario de Hoy’s publication of repeated editorials attacking the Agrupación followed by the three pages of unfounded accusations of financial misconduct. The statement expressed concern that these actions “could be turning into a stage for threats to human rights defenders. For that reason this concern has been communicated to the Attorney General for Human Rights in El Salvador which has opened a file on the case in order to provide follow up,” the statement reads.
Sara Garcia, coordinator of the Agrupación, said in a Skype interview with Rewire that Agrupación members have concerns about physical safety. “In such a highly fundamentalist country, you never know who you might meet up with.” Garcia noted that international media exposure provides a measure of safety at the organizational and personal levels.
Although the Agrupación and its supporters take seriously the threats and attempts to silence their work, they know that the attacks are responses to their successes. Just recently Amnesty International joined the conversation and the Human Rights Prosecutor in El Salvador has declared that abortion is a topic that the country must review.
The conviction that what they are doing is just and right comes through in the song to which Agrupación members include links to in their emails, “Nos Tienen Miedo Porque No Tenemos Miedo” by Calle 13, a Puerto Rican alternative musical group. The title translates as, “They’re afraid of us because we’re not afraid.”