Human Rights Advocacy in El Salvador: Three Media Use Cases

January 8, 2020

Nora Sabo, Liz Holly, and Natalie Blank, University of Dayton

The Development Challenge

Historically, civil society and the Salvadoran government have struggled to cooperate to solve the country’s most troubling issues – including violence, migration, and abuse of human rights. Civil society organizations (CSOs) in El Salvador had frequently been accused by public officials as being overly critical of the government instead of trying to work cooperatively and effectively to solve these problems. Conversely, government has paid scant attention to CSO advocacy efforts and their demands for greater transparency and accountability. The United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Rights and Dignity Project (2017–2022) was designed to address this challenge.

Situational Context

Nayib Bukele, elected as President of El Salvador in June 2019, made a public pledge to lead an administration that respects and supports human rights. At age 37, the youngest person ever elected President of El Salvador, the tech-savvy new president faces many challenges within his country, including high rates of crime and gang violence, outward migration, discrimination and persecution of vulnerable populations, and lingering issues of immunity for powerful people who have violated laws or committed atrocities during the civil war.

Most Salvadorians are hopeful that President Bukele will set the country on a new course that will, as stated by Amnesty International’s Erika Guevara Rosas, “…ensure that human rights are central in decision making and in the design and implementation of the nation’s public policies.” CSOs in El Salvador are ready to work with this new president and see an opportunity to improve human rights in El Salvador given this new administration’s determination to solve the country’s most challenging issues. In order to effectively improve the state of human rights in El Salvador, CSOs must have support from both the government and the citizenry.

Through the USAID Rights and Dignity project, co-implemented with Partners El Salvador and the Due Process of Law Foundation, a national network of human rights organizations (HROs) was established, which worked to develop the first ever Collaborative Roadmap of Inclusion and Human Rights. The project also works to promote tolerance and social inclusion among four historically vulnerable groups: people with disabilities; the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community; women; and youth. In 2019, the project launched the first National Human Rights Observatory in El Salvador.

Even prior to the Bukele administration, civic space in El Salvador had been growing and the relationship between civil society and government was improving. According to the Rights and Dignity Project Year Two Annual Report, the past government had shown an increasing willingness to participate in open dialogues about critical topics, including but not limited to: violence against women, extrajudicial killings, and LGBTI rights. There has also been a noticeable increase in the capacity of CSOs to speak out against injustices.

Advocacy and Effective Media Utilization

Media and civil society effectiveness in El Salvador score a .81 / 1.0 on USAID’s Journey to Self-Reliance (JSR) Country Roadmap. Increasingly, they have taken advantage of society’s wider adoption of the internet and social media. According to World Bank statistics, nearly 50% of Salvadorians regularly access the internet and an estimated 66% have mobile phones. President Bukele has proven to be adept at social media, with 1.2 million Twitter followers and 2.2 million followers on Facebook. He has sent out more than 50,000 Tweets, sometimes dozens per day, that get amplified by both social media and traditional media outlets. This amplification is important in reaching the whole of the country and is made possible even among the estimated 10% of the population that is illiterate through the combined 2.1 million televisions and radios in the country.

This led our team to our primary research question: Has civil society been able to understand and effectively use these new tools and opportunities in this evolving communications landscape?

To fully take advantage of this newly open media environment, Salvadoran CSOs and human rights activists should learn the tools and methods of broad-based new and traditional media outreach to further protect the rights of their constituencies. Our research looked at three human rights-focused organizations in El Salvador: the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), Amnesty International, and La Colectiva Feminista.   

As an international multi-governmental development organization, UNICEF focuses on advocating for the rights of youth in El Salvador, especially those affected by gang violence. One of UNICEF’s most effective public awareness and advocacy campaigns was No te Indigna? (Doesn’t it Outrage You?). The purpose of the campaign, which had international soccer star David Beckham as a spokesperson, was to urge the people of El Salvador to mobilize against the sexual violence affecting young people. Social media platforms such as YouTube as well as promotional events and forums were most effective in communicating with community and civil society leaders as well as in mobilizing citizens of El Salvador to stand-up against youth violence.

Amnesty International is a transnational advocacy and human rights organization. They take no governmental funding in order to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest with those they are evaluating for human rights abuses. In El Salvador, Amnesty International has organized a My Body, My Rights multimedia campaign. This is especially important in El Salvador where abortion is illegal, contraception is regularly denied, and LGBTI populations are regularly face discrimination. The campaign aims to stop the control of and decriminalize sexuality and reproduction. The campaign uses social media platforms, such as Twitter and YouTube. In addition, Amnesty publishes yearly reports highlighting different human rights violations that occur in El Salvador. These reports serve as an important and effective platform for government and civil society to initiate discussions on difficult human rights topics. Amnesty International has also worked as a mediator between human rights organizations and the government and meets with local officials to build public support that prompts government offices to act.

La Colectiva Feminista (Women’s Collective) is a local Salvadoran CSO that fights for women’s equality and follows a “nothing about us, without us” motto. Facebook and Twitter are the main platforms used to post daily pictures, events, and updates on their efforts. Their primary outreach and advocacy campaign urges El Salvador to pay off its debt to women – and uses the slogan and hashtag #DeudaConLosMujeres. This hashtag is used on all their emails, social media postings, and in their promotional literature. The Collective also uses an online radio program to get their message out. As El Salvador’s first online feminist radio program, communicating about examples of masculinity, women in history, and gender equality, this platform is well received by its listeners as demonstrated by increasing listenership and positive feedback.

What We Learned

As students, it was useful gaining access to Counterpart staff and their partners in El Salvador in conducting this research. Our primary finding, while not a big surprise, was that it is important that advocacy campaigns use a variety of diverse media platforms, channels, and techniques to maximize audience reach, and ultimately increase public support for your campaign issue. Using multiple media delivery channels and messaging will ensure that pressure is focused on governmental bodies to make appropriate changes that advance the human rights concerns and interests of the Salvadoran people and CSOs.

Additionally, while internet penetration in El Salvador hovers around 50%, hashtag campaigns such as #NoTeIndigna are amplified by other social media outlets and covered by traditional media, resulting in greater reach and impact than the number of Twitter users in El Salvador may portend. Also, having an international organization partner with an international celebrity spokesperson has brought global attention to the issue of youth violence in El Salvador. Similarly, Amnesty International’s use of public communications tools and reports has effectively gotten the government to sit down and discuss issues of public concern regarding human rights. La Colectiva Feminista’s use of an internet radio format is essentially a free (important for a local CSO) channel to disseminate their message to anyone with internet access. Considering the president’s social media skill and interest in speaking directly to the population as well as the country’s historical reliance on radio – we would not be surprised if he utilized this medium as well.

In conclusion, we believe if CSOs in El Salvador continue to use, scale, and innovate new communications and outreach tools and techniques – they will continue to be successful in preserving civic space as well as defend the rights of their constituents.

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