Pegasus spyware operators in El Salvador were seeking the sources and personal data of journalists and members of civil society.
HAVANA TIMES – Carlos Dada, founder and director of the Salvadoran online news site El Faro, has “no doubt” who was behind the telephone surveillance of 22 members of his team. During 2020 and 2021, these journalists and other employees were victims of massive espionage, using the highly invasive Pegasus software. The phone espionage is part of a pattern of attacks, threats, harassment, and attempts to discredit the press, all the work of Nayib Bukele’s government. Although the Salvadoran administration has tried to distance itself from these events, Dada firmly asserts that they’re the only suspects on his list.
The journalist’s accusation is based on the fact that the maker of the Pegasus software, used on 226 occasions to hack into his and his colleagues’ cell phones, comes from an Israeli company called NSO. That company has assured – in legal declarations – that they only sell this espionage technology to state security agencies. This leads Dada to a clear conclusion: “some government is behind this.” According to the analysis of the devices carried out by Citizen Lab and Access Now, the Pegasus operator is in El Salvador.
The telephone surveillance of El Faro’s team members and other Salvadorans was so aggressive that Citizen Lab and Access Now termed it “obsessive”. Dada notes that the Pegasus operator was not only looking for their sources of information, but also wanted to follow “all our movements”. Given that they obtained all the journalists’ personal information, “we’re concerned this could be used to harm us.”
Below are Dada’s declarations during his recent interview with Carlos Fernando Chamorro, broadcast on Sunday, January 16, via the online television news program Esta Semana. Dada maintains that El Faro will continue informing because it has a firm commitment to its audience and its information sources. However, he admits that the espionage has forced them to seek new ways of communicating, including a probable return to more traditional methods. Pegasus, he adds, only “adds to the series of threats, harassment and attacks against the press in El Salvador.”
This operation involved 22 reporters from El Faro, with a total of 226 hacks over a period of nearly one and a half years, during 2020 and 2021. There were also attacks against other journalists and activists of Salvadoran civil society, all using the Israeli software called Pegasus. What does this spying operation signify?
It’s an inacceptable invasion of our private lives, our private conversations, on the part of Pegasus operators. I believe this operation perfectly reflects the serious deterioration of democracy and press freedom in El Salvador. As you stated, in El Faro alone, 22 of us had our phones infected with Pegasus. It’s not only a matter of the quantity of people, but also the number of interceptions on our telephones and the duration of this meddling. Citizen Lab and Access Now – two international organizations that analyzed the data from our telephones – concluded that it was an espionage so aggressive that they could only catalogue it as obsessive, given the insistent way they tried to detect all our movements. I believe that’s an accurate description of this situation.
How did they detect the fact that these cellphones were infected with Pegasus?
We began to detect anomalies with the phone of one of our colleagues, Julia Gavarrete, a journalist with El Faro. So, we decided to speak with Access Now and Citizen Lab to have them analyze her telephone and determine if it was infected with Pegasus. Their investigation came out positive. On seeing the scope of the intervention, they themselves suggested that we send them other telephones, from other people in El Faro, so as to determine the extent of this espionage. The other telephones turned out to be infected as well, and they asked for more and more of them. In the end, we sent them thirty devices from El Faro alone, of which 22 turned out to be infected with Pegasus. These weren’t just phones belonging to our journalists; phones from our Sales Department, from Administration, and our General Manager’s phone all turned out to have been infected with Pegasus.
In your personal case, how many times was your telephone accessed from outside?
We have to differentiate here – it’s one thing the number of times they break into your telephone, and another how long each one of those incidents lasts. I’ll give you an example, to illustrate the difference. Oscar Martinez, was the one whose phone suffered the greatest number of hacks – it was accessed 49 times. However, the interferences took place during a little over 50 days. In contrast, they only hacked into my phone 12 times, but each intervention lasted so long that they were essentially spying on my telephone continuously for a total of 167 days, all in a period of just over a year.
The case of Carlos Martinez was even worse. Citizen Lab determined that his phone was basically accessed without interruption. They were constantly listening in on his phone, turning on our cameras, our microphones, having access to our photos, videos, chats, passwords, apps, bank accounts, absolutely everything.
Is it possible to know what kind of information has been extracted, and what was the specific objective of this spying operation, considering the period of time it took place in?
The first interventions detected began in July 2020, and the last in September 2021. That was the period of active Pegasus spying that Citizen Lab and Access Now succeeded in detecting.
What were they looking for? Well, it’s clear they were looking for who our sources are, who’s keeping us informed. But, unlike previous cases of journalists’ phones being hacked, Citizen Lab believes that in our case the spying was so obsessive that they really wanted to detect every one of our movements, and also gain information about our private lives. This, in the hands of people who’ve demonstrated the will and capacity to harm us. This leaves us concerned that it will be used precisely to damage us.
Two years ago, before detecting, documenting and denouncing this massive spying operation, El Faro was already denouncing other incidents: attacks, intimidation, physical siege, threats, and even the expulsions of some journalists by Nayib Bukele’s government. Is this espionage operation related to the political tension in the government’s relations with the press?
Yes, of course. With the data from the technical report that the organizations sent us, we cross-checked information on the moments of the most intense Pegasus spying, with data regarding our own publication cycles. They coincided perfectly. The moments of greatest intensity were always related to one of our most impacting news stories during this period: before and after publication of Bukele’s negotiations with the gangs; before and after our revelations of certain corrupt activities of this government. They also coincided with some of the national news cycles that we’re always following closely. In some of these, unfortunately, we ourselves have been involuntary protagonists. For example, another moment of great intensity (in the espionage) is around the days when President Nayib Bukele, went on national television to accuse us of money laundering. That’s what I’m talking about when I say we were involuntarily and unfortunately made protagonists at that time.
We have no doubt that this was part of a series of attacks, threats, harassment, aggressions, and discrediting of the press that the Bukele government has promoted. I want to add another element that seems to me important in this determination, because Citizen Lab can’t definitively determine that it was the government of El Salvador. They establish that “everything points to” that, but I want to add more elements to sustain our accusation against the Salvadoran government. The maker of Pegasus is an Israeli company called NSO. They have declared – including legally – that they only sell this espionage technology to governments: that is, to intelligence agencies or state security agencies. In other words, a government is behind this, because, in addition, purchases of the NSO spying software must be approved by the Israeli Ministry of Defense.
On January 13, a Salvadoran government spokesperson declared that the Salvadoran government didn’t contract with this company to purchase the Pegasus software. How do you interpret this declaration? Does this free the government from any possible responsibility in this operation?
Not at all. For some years now, we’ve been seeing the same thing in other countries, and hearing the same reaction on the part of the company that produces the software. What have we been seeing? That the Pegasus software, according to NSO, was designed to be sold only to state agencies for combating terrorism and organized crime. But what we’ve seen in the past few years is that it’s been used to spy on journalists, activists, human rights advocates, all over the world. In all these cases, the governments deny it, except -if I remember correctly – the case of Poland, which last week admitted having purchased Pegasus. Why are the governments essentially obligated to deny it? Because they’re making bad use of that software, because they’re committing illegal acts, because they’re spying on activists, journalists, and members of civil society, because they’re putting our sources at risk, because they’re harvesting data from our private lives.
It doesn’t surprise me that the government of Nayib Bukele has denied any responsibility for this. It’s the same thing that other governments have done: the government of Hungary, the Philippine government, etcetera.
But there’s another very special element in this investigation of Citizen Lab and Access Now. When they were analyzing Carlos Martinez’ telephone, they were able to witness live the moment when the Pegasus operator was extracting his information. That had never happened before, and it allowed Citizen Lab to determine the geographic location of the Pegasus operator. They concluded that the operator is in El Salvador. That leaves one of two possibilities: either it’s the Salvadoran government; or someone else is putting at risk and threatening our national security. However, the Bukele government has responded by merely washing their hands of the matter. I publicly invited the government to allow an independent, international investigation – since the Salvadoran justice system isn’t trustworthy – in order to really determine who is responsible for spying on journalists, activists and members of civil society. The government of Nayib Buukele hasn’t responded to this request. To us, there’s only one person or entity on our list of suspects, and that’s the government of Nayib Bukele.
This is a crime that violates Salvadoran laws. Are you going to present, or have you already presented, a complaint or denunciation before the Salvadoran authorities? Or are you going to focus on demanding an independent investigation?
There are 35 of us, not all Salvadorans, whose phones have been invaded by Pegasus. Among us are journalists from several different media outlets: Gato Encerrado, La Prensa Grafica, Revista Disruptiva, and the Diario de Hoy. On Friday, [January 14], at 2 pm, the Association of Journalists of El Salvador formally presented the Salvadoran Attorney General’s office with a demand to investigate these telephone hacks. That is, there’s already been a formal action in this sense, but we haven’t taken any of the options off the table.
One of these options is a review of the international laws, because, effectively, there’s been extra-territorial espionage in this case. My telephone was invaded over a two-week period during which I was in Mexico; the same was true of the Mexican editor of El Faro, Daniel Lizarraga. They continued monitoring his phone after he was forced out of El Salvador and back in his home country. We haven’t yet discounted any options.
You mentioned that during their extraction of information, the spies obtained information on the sources used by El Faro and other media – not only their identities, but documents, conversations, in many cases protected information that they confided to the communications media. I read an editorial in El Faro warning its sources of this situation. What consequences does the fact that not only journalists but also information sources were objects of espionage hold for the exercise of journalism?
It hinders our work enormously, especially when in my country we no longer have access to public information. We’re ever more dependent on sources able to offer us information, at a risk to their own safety, their job stability, their family life or their very permanence in the country. Our obligation, and that’s the reason for the editorial, was to warn any person who may have had any kind of communication with us during this period, that their communication could be in the hands of the Salvadoran government. We’ve already received responses from some of the sources who aided us, saying: “Well, after talking with you, my wife was fired from her state job”; or “We received threats,” etc. This makes our work much more difficult, [but] we’ve promised our sources that we’ll continue seeking secure ways to be able to talk with them. In these conditions – without utilizing sources – our work is ever more difficult. As such, the situation becomes ever more convenient and more comfortable for those who want to cover up the things we’re determined to inform about.
How can journalism continue being carried out under espionage? The journalists and their sources are left totally defenseless. Is there any way to protect them? How can we avoid having this end in a state of anxiety, or even self-censorship, for us?
We’ve promised to continue exercising journalism. Certainly – as we said in the editorial – it’s ever more difficult to practice journalism in El Salvador, but it’s still more difficult to serve as a source for journalists under these conditions. I believe that your experience in Confidencial, of being under threats, harassment, and much more serious attacks, is an experience that we too can learn from.
How can you continue exercising journalism when the conditions for doing so are very difficult? We’re faced with a government obsessed with avoiding any presentation of a narrative different from the one they want to show, and with hiding acts of corruption and violations to the rule of law in the Constitution. We’ll have to look for new ways of talking with sources, probably going back to the traditional methods. Pegasus is just one of the ways they’ve spied on us. Previously, we had already denounced being followed, being intercepted, sending drones to our homes, theft of computers, etc. Pegasus only added to a series of threats, harassments, and attacks against the press in El Salvador.