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Spyware found on devices of 35 journalists and civil society activists in El Salvador

Protester holds sign "Although they spy on us, they do not silence us" on 30th anniversary of peace agreement. San Salvador, 16 January 2022. Emerson Flores/APHOTOGRAFIA/Getty Images.

Expression

On 12th January 2022, a joint investigation by civil society groups Access Now, Front Line Defenders, The Citizen Lab, Amnesty International, Fundación Acceso, and SocialTIC showed that NSO Group’s Pegasus technology was used in El Salvador for the surveillance of journalists and civil society. Pegasus spyware was discovered on mobile phones belonging to at least 30 journalists in the country, 23 of whom worked with news outlet El Faro. The spyware was also found in devices belonging to journalists from GatoEncerrado, La Prensa Gráfica, Revista Digital Disruptiva, El Diario de Hoy and El Diario El Mundo. At least four members of civil society were also targeted: one staff member from Cristosal, two from Fundación Democracia, Transparencia y Justicia (DTJ), and one from an organisation that preferred to remain anonymous.

According to the investigation, the devices were infected between July 2020 and November 2021. While the researchers could not conclusively link the hacks to El Salvador’s government, the report said “the strong country-specific focus of the infections suggests that this is very likely.” The NSO Group has repeatedly claimed it only sells Pegasus technology to governments. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on El Salvador’s Public Prosecutor to open an investigation into the use of Pegasus spyware to hack into the phones of Salvadorean journalists. The organisation highlighted that El Faro is openly critical of the authorities and published reports in 2020 of an alleged government negotiation with the criminal gang known as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13).

Between 13th and 14th January 2022, hackers attacked the WhatsApp accounts of Asociación de Periodistas de El Salvador (El Salvador’s Journalists Association - APES) and at least eight independent journalists. Among the accounts hacked was a number used by APES to receive reports of attacks on journalists for their monitoring centre. After the association filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office over the use of Pegasus, they also received a message saying the “attacks would not stop.” APES member Yoni Azenón reported that his social media accounts were also hacked in early January 2022, after several smear messages against him circulated in December 2021. The reporter said that hackers used his name and image to make him look like the author of cyberattacks, for instance by changing the title of hacked WhatsApp groups to “Stolen by Yoni Azenón.”

Association

On 26th January 2022, the Criminal Chamber of Ahuachapán ordered the release of three environmental defenders who had been in pre-trial detention since November 2021. Jorge Alberto Zúniga Artero, Rosa Miriam Cinco and José David Miro Escalante were detained for alleged “violent occupation” of land plots belonging to real estate company Inmobiliaria Fénix S.A. de C.V. Four other people from Hacienda La Labor, Ahuachapán department, also face charges. The Ombudsperson’s Office said in a statement that the three defenders’ pre-trial detention constituted the criminalisation of human rights advocacy work. The group still faces charges.

The developer is building housing project “Residencial Eco-Terra Hacienda”, a residential development of 1,764 luxury homes in the region. The accusations against the defenders were made after communities in Hacienda La Labor denounced that the company was conducting water extraction without the appropriate permits, affecting water supply to over 20,000 families. Following community pressure in October 2021, Fénix temporarily suspended water extraction and filed a complaint against seven community members. Company representatives would have allegedly offered to withdraw their complaint if the defenders agreed to convince local communities to sign documents saying they authorised the project.

Peaceful Assembly

30 years of El Salvador’s Peace Agreements

On 16th January 2022, thousands of people demonstrated on the 30th anniversary of the Chapultepec Peace Agreement, which put an end to over a decade of armed conflict. A few days earlier, on 11th January 2022, ruling party legislators had approved a decree repealing the official commemoration of the Agreement and declaring the 16th January as the “National Day of the Victims of the Armed Conflict.” Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele had previously called the 1992 Agreement a “farce” and a “pact among the corrupt.”

Many of the demonstrators expressed their dissatisfaction against Bukele’s decisions, including this recent decree. “They can’t erase history with a legislative decree. They must have that very clear,” said Ricardo Navarro, president of environmental group CESTA (Friends of the Earth El Salvador). Demonstrators expressed similar sentiments, holding signs that read messages such as “No decree will erase our memory” and “No dictator will erase our memory”.

The protest was joined by former guerrilla members, army veterans, victims of human rights violations, as well as members of social and feminist organisations. Civil society organisations denounced that military and police checkpoints prevented some demonstrators from reaching the gathering. Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International, called on the government to guarantee the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly.

More anti-government protests

On 12th December 2021, thousands of protesters joined a demonstration against corruption and authoritarianism. The demonstration was organised after the United States included Salvadoran officials among individuals sanctioned for corruption. News outlets reported that police checkpoints, placed the day before the protest, delayed or prevented some demonstrators from joining the protest.