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IACHR Press Office
Washington, D.C.- The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression, and the Regional Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for Central America, the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean are deeply concerned about new evidence of the use of the malware Pegasus for illegal surveillance of journalists and civil society organizations who investigate and report on matters of public interest in El Salvador. The IACHR, its Special Rapporteurship, and the Regional Office of the OHCHR urge the State to effectively and impartially investigate these allegations and to protect the integrity of the victims.
Research conducted by Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto and the Access Now initiative found that at least 35 individuals who worked for media outlets and civil society organizations in El Salvador had had their phones tapped with Pegasus malware, created by the Israeli company NSO Group. The IACHR’s Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression has already warned about the use of Pegasus in other countries around the Americas and about the risks it entails for the rights of victims of espionage.
The report found that, of the 35 individuals who were allegedly spied on, at least 22 were believed to work for the investigative journalism portal El Faro. The portal’s team was allegedly subjected to surveillance at least over the period June 29, 2020–November 23, 2021. This research also found that illegal access to victim phones happened on specific dates that matched those where the news outlet had just revealed or was close to revealing features of public interest, as well as in contexts with relevant national political debates. These kinds of practices not only violate the right to privacy but could also potentially affect rights that are inherent to the exercise of journalism—including source protection and integrity—as well as the rights of individuals close to the victims.
Of the 22 El Faro workers who allegedly had their phones tapped, 19 have been beneficiaries of IACHR precautionary measures since January 4, 2021. According to the available reports, a significant number of tapping incidents took place in April–May 2021, three months after precautionary measures were granted to ask the State of El Salvador to ensure that beneficiaries could conduct their journalistic work, in the exercise of their right to freedom of expression, without being subjected to intimidation, threats, or harassment. In this regard, the State informed of its interest in maintaining the follow-up of the precautionary measures in the El Faro case under the mechanism of periodic reports.
Faced with allegations of digital surveillance on legitimate activities including journalism and the defense of human rights, States have a duty to formally and promptly notify the individuals whose privacy is being violated, so these individuals can (i) know what data have been gathered and (ii) say how they want that information is to be treated in the future. The IACHR, its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression, and the OHCHR invite El Salvador to provide effective safeguards of the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy, particularly for people active in journalism and the defense of human rights, by conducting thorough, effective, and impartial investigations with due diligence.
Recent news about the repeated use of surveillance software in many countries shows an extremely worrying trend focused on intimidating journalists and human rights defenders.
The IACHR, its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression, and the OHCHR take note of the public statements issued by El Salvador’s Attorney General on efforts to investigate these events. The three institutions urge the State of El Salvador to establish what happened, punish anyone found guilty in connection with these events, and provide guarantees of non-recurrence by changing electronic surveillance rules and ensuring compliance with the country’s obligations in the field of international human rights law. For the IACHR, its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression, and the OHCHR, establishing what happened as well as its impact on the exercise of human rights and ensuring accountability for both aspects require independent investigation and a high degree of cooperation from both public and private actors. For its part, the State indicated that "the origin of such interventions is unknown, and it is conducting the corresponding investigations to determine the responsibility and authorship of such acts, which would have also violated devices and communications of state officials".
All instances of communications device tapping must be backed by a transparent legal framework and comply with international human rights standards, as well as ensuring respect for the principles of necessity, proportionality, and the pursuit of a legitimate goal that complies with these rules. As previously noted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression stress the need for an immediate moratorium on the sale, transfer, and use of surveillance technology until adequate normative frameworks are in place to ensure respect for human rights.
The IACHR, its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression, and the OHCHR stress the importance of the work of journalists and human rights defenders. These institutions commend victims of espionage and all the people who have bravely documented and disseminated information on this case.
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.
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.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is the UN’s main body in the field of human rights. The General Assembly entrusted the High Commissioner and her Office with the mission of promoting and protecting all the human rights of all people. At States’ request, the OHCHR provides assistance to develop technical capacities and support the enforcement of international human rights standards, in order to protect human rights and to ensure their effective enjoyment. The OHCHR helps governments—who are responsible for protecting human rights—to comply with their international obligations and supports individuals so they may stand up for their own rights. It also objectively flags human rights violations.