UDW Sits Down with the FMLN’s Mauricio Funes from El Salvador (Part II)

In the second installment of our interview with El Salvadoran Presidential candidate Mauricio Funes, the candidate for the FMLN party speaks about his political influences, the media in El Salvador, and the potential for fraud in the upcoming election. Funes leads a recect poll conducted by the Universidad Centroamericana by 16 points over his principal opponent, former PNC chief Rodrigo Avila.

You’ve said that Archbishop Romero has served as a sort of compass for your work. Who are the others people that have helped you in the same way?

I studied at a Jesuit college and at a university that is also run by Jesuits, where I had the opportunity to get to know the priests that were killed while the guerilla offensive was happening in 1989. Father Ignacio Ellacuría was the Vice-Chancellor of the Universidad Centroamericana at that time; Father Segundo Montes was the Dean of the School of Human and Environmental sciences, and he was also my social sciences and sociology teacher when I was a secondary school student. Both of them also influenced my academic training and the theoretical framework that I developed. This was very useful to me over the course of the 21 years I spent as a professional journalist; it helped me to ground myself in reality and to take a particular position regarding that reality.

I have always said that I don’t believe in neutral reporting, in the journalist that takes a look at the reality and says that to be objective, you can’t have an opinion about that reality—especially in a country like El Salvador that has such high levels of poverty, inequality and social exclusion. In the face of this structural injustice, as Father Ellacuría used to say, the only ethical posture to take is that of indignation.
And indignation leads a journalist to take sides; to side with reality, and with changing that reality. So, in addition to Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero and the commitment that his ministry symbolized, the Jesuits had a decisive influence on my academic training and my vision of reality, and particularly over my work as a journalist.

So, Father Ellacuría and Father Montes, but also another group of people influenced me over the course of my career in journalism, starting with my older brother Roberto, who was killed as a student leader in 1980, on August 14. His commitment to changing the country eventually led to him being kidnapped by the security forces of the time and killed. That strengthened my dedication to continue my work.

Also, for over 14 years my wife Vanda supported and helped me in my work as a journalist, as she is a woman with sound and democratic political convictions. She is a woman with left-leanings, from the Workers Party in Brazil. My contact with her and my experiences with her have also made me see things in a different light, and eventually influenced the opinions I arrived at as a journalist and now as a presidential candidate.

UDW: Regarding journalism–You said in 2003 that you would consider “going into politics when your time as a journalist had come to and end.” And now you’ve said recently that the spaces for the type of journalism that you believe in have been closed down. So what are these spaces that have been closed, and what would you do as president regarding the relationship between the state and the media?

In El Salvador the majority of the media is controlled by the right. And when I say it is controlled by the right, I’m not just referring to the fact that the capital —the media properties—belongs to men with a clearly rightwing political vision, but also that the editorial content, the focus of their news coverage, is a focus that is a product of collusion with the right, and linked closely with the ruling party.
Being a journalist in this context, where the majority of the media—almost every single outlet—is linked with the right, brings you to a crossroads: either work at these outlets and buy into the prevailing ideological outlook that they have, or be in a constant state of rebellion inside of them. In the latter case, the option is to build legitimate spaces with the help of the public, over the span of your journalism career.

That is what I tried to do. I worked for a television media outlet for more than 20 years, but a television company controlled by the right that gave very little room to maneuver to the various reporters in which to carry out critical journalism. So just to be able to take a critical position towards reality I had to constantly confront power. And I slowly arrived at a point where all the room to maneuver had been taken away.

When I said in 2003 that I felt that for the moment my time in journalism was not up, that was because I still felt there was some room to maneuver to do critical, independent journalism at the media outlet where I carried out my work. But then I was fired from that outlet, the station was bought by Mexico’s TV Azteca (a Mexican-owned television network. -ed.).

Television Azteca arrived at an agreement with the administration at the time and offered to invest more in government advertising on the station if I left, or if they shut down the spaces available to me and the amount of room to maneuver I had possessed up to that point.

I had to leave. I started a new program, I fought for two and half years, but in the end I was running up against a reality that was insurmountable. And this caused me to run up against a media dictatorship that no longer allowed me to continue carrying out journalism in the way I conceive of it: an independent and democratic journalism, a pluralistic journalism, and above all, a committed journalism. That’s when I became convinced that it was difficult to continue to contribute to society while remaining a journalist. That was when I decided that my time as a journalist had come to a close and that I could continue make my contribution to society, but not in the realm of journalism, but in the realm of politics.

And as president, what would you do to open up these new [media] spaces?

I would institutionalize tolerance. Someone who is in power and exercises power democratically also has to exercise tolerance. The Right in El Salvador, like the majority of the Right in Latin America, does not exercise tolerance. It ends up punishing or rewarding the media based on their editorial line.

As president, I have to be respectful of the prevailing ideological currents in the country, and they have the right to express themselves through the media. I don’t consider freedom of the press to be the freedom of the owners of the press to say whatever they want. I consider freedom of the press to be the possibility for the different social and political forces in the country to express themselves through the media. And for the media to reproduce the different ideological and thought currents that exist in society.

As president, I will tolerate the existence of different currents of opinion and I will allow them to express themselves through the media. I’m not going to punish or reward them with the tool so often used in our country: government spending on advertising. I’m not going to punish or reward a media outlet based on its editorial line.

The year has been very taxing for you so far, and will continue to be. So, how has the transition from journalist to presidential candidate been, and what to expect of this year?

I was used to confronting power. But now I am confronting a much darker power, one that is much more blind and irrational. As a journalist my work signified a threat to the status quo. But the powers that be shut down my ability to continue to carry out my journalism work; they undermined economically the companies that I worked for.

Now as a candidate the situation is different, because as a candidate I am confronting a blind, intolerant, autocratic and excluding power that is very afraid of different parties taking a turn in office. It is very afraid of the alternative being built for exercising public power, especially at the level of the presidency. And it is willing to do anything and use any method to block that alternative.

The transition from journalism to being involved in politics as a candidate has not been difficult in the sense that I was committed journalist and now I have made a commitment as a candidate to transform the unjust structures of the country. However, as a candidate, I am facing a much more blind power because my candidacy represents a larger threat to the status quo, a larger threat to the established political power structures, than my journalism represented. And that’s why I’m confronting a much more authoritarian and excluding power than I did when I was a journalist.

And with that in mind, that you represent a threat to the power structure, what chance is there that the election results will be respected by all sectors?
That is what we fear in the FMLN and in the citizen movement that supports my presidential candidacy: that the Right, which holds the keys to power, will lock us out and will not respect the election results.

Last year, before the cycle was over in November, the Legislative Assembly (which is dominated by the Right, the governing ARENA party, along with the party of the armed forces, the National Reconciliation Party, PCN, which is also rightwing, and the Christian Democratic Party, which is more rightwing now than when it began 35 years ago) approved a series of electoral reforms that give the Right the chance to win at the negotiating table what they fail to win on the battlefield.

What do I mean by that? The electoral reforms give the Supreme Court, which is the maximum electoral authority, the discretion to decide at the negotiating table what was not decided on the battlefield. And it gives the court the ability to consolidate electoral fraud, fraud in the process of registration and voting, and steal the victory from us. Before this reform, the Supreme Court, which is made up of five justices, made its decisions based on consensus. In order to reach a decision, four justices had to vote in favor. With this new reform this is no longer the case, the decisions can be made by just three of the five justices, and three of them are controlled by the ruling party.

So now they can make whatever decision they want that gives them an advantage in the electoral field. That is why we have begun an international campaign denouncing this situation and asking for international solidarity so that international observers can arrive in our country in time to guarantee greater transparency the day of the elections. We have appealed to the United States Congress, to the European Parliament, and to non-government organizations that have monitored close electoral races in the past and whose presence could guarantee greater transparency.

That is why we are hoping not just to win these elections, but to win substantially, because the larger the margin the better to prevent a fraudulent ballot count from stealing our victory. But are we concerned about the Right attempting an electoral fraud? Of course we are, we can see signs of it.