The IACHR and Its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression Urge the State of El Salvador to Not Pass the Foreign Agents Bill

November 17, 2021

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Washington, D.C. – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression urge the State of El Salvador to refrain from passing the Foreign Agents Bill. The implementation of this piece of legislation could seriously affect the work of individuals, civil society organizations, and media outlets active in the defense of human rights and freedom of the press.

According to the Legislative Assembly, the Interior and Territorial Development Ministry submitted on November 9 a Foreign Agents Bill. If approved, this piece of legislation would mean that all individuals and organizations who engage in activities that "directly or indirectly respond to the interests of or are controlled or funded by a foreign principal" will have the obligation to register as "foreign agents." According to official reports, the Foreign Relations Committee of the General Assembly issued an opinion on November 16 in favor of the bill.

The bill bans "foreign agents" from engaging in activities that "have political or other goals, seek to disturb public order, or to endanger or threaten the country's national security or it social and political stability," among others. It also sets requirements concerning the registration, resource use, and communications of these "foreign agents" regarding their activities. The IACHR is particularly concerned about how a potential lack of compliance with these dispositions could lead to criminal and administrative responsibilities, as well as to shutdowns in activities and to cancellations of the legal status of the affected "foreign agents." The bill also considers the imposition of a 40% tax on all financial transactions and donations coming from abroad, beyond a few expressly stated exceptions.

The corresponding act would enter into force eight days after publication in the official journal. According to the bill's explicit provisos, this legislation seeks to "promote transparency regarding foreign influence within El Salvador," so that "citizens know what foreign agents hope to influence public opinion," as well as to preserve the country's security, national sovereignty, and social and political stability.

The Commission and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression note that, if approved, this initiative could restrict the legitimate operations and activities of individuals and civil society organizations active in the defense of human rights and independent journalism, who sometimes receive international aid to assist their development. The Commission and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression also note that this legislation demands, over a short period of time, compliance with administrative and fiscal requirements that are potentially arbitrary or disproportionate, and enables the application of tough sanctions on individuals and organizations who fail to adapt to these dispositions. It would therefore also affect the exercise of freedom of association and expression.

The IACHR has said that States must promote and facilitate human rights organizations' access to aid funding, whether domestic or foreign, and refrain from restricting these organizations' funding sources. Restrictions of foreign funding can in many cases be a hurdle to prevent defenders from doing their work, since many rely on these resources for lack of domestic funding.

The Commission and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression further consider it inadmissible to exercise financial or political pressure with the goal of influencing or restricting the expressions of individuals and media outlets who are believed to be critical of or outright against official voices or government interests. The Commission and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression stress that direct or indirect pressure that seeks to silence legitimate discourses is incompatible with inter-American standards on freedom of expression.

Human rights defenders, journalists, and media outlets play a central role in democratic societies and in efforts to strengthen the rule of law. The Commission and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression therefore call on the State of El Salvador to refrain from approving this bill, or at least to adapt it to inter-American human rights standards.

Concerning the available reports on how fast this bill is going through the General Assembly, the Commission and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression stress that all legislation with an impact on the exercise of fundamental rights and liberties must comply with democratic standards concerning broad public deliberation, plurality, publicity, and transparency, to ensure legitimate treatment in the legislature.

The Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression is an office created by the IACHR to promote the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the Americas, considering the fundamental role that right plays in the consolidation and development of any democratic system.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 308/21

4:30 PM