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Journalists Are Under Threat in El Salvador. I Know Because I Was Targeted

6 minute read
Martínez is an investigative journalist at the independent news outlet El Faro in El Salvador

Becoming a target of one of the most notorious spyware programs in the world has been an unnerving experience. While it has briefly brought the world’s attention to El Salvador, it is just the latest step in an escalating crackdown on press freedoms in the country. Between 2020 and 2021, my cell phone was infected with the Pegasus program—the invasive spying software—for a total of 269 days. That was a record, according to the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and digital rights group Access Now, which analyzed the device. The surveillance was so rampant that, to the researchers’ surprise, an attempt was made to access my phone while they were examining it, something they had never seen before.

The Salvadoran government, led by a young and very popular autocrat in President Nayib Bukele, has denied responsibility for the hacking, claiming it has neither the money nor the necessary licenses to buy and operate such software. But it has been consistent in both its relationship with El Faro, the independent news outlet I work for, and its obvious intentions, which aren’t too complicated: Bukele wants us to shut up, to stop doing journalism, to stop questioning him.

To that end he has launched defamation campaigns, used state institutions to attack us, and accused us on national television of being money launderers, threatening to put us on trial for damaging the reputations of pious public officials. And now it appears that the Bukele regime has also spied on us for more than a year. It’s a playbook that has already been used by other authoritarian regimes in Latin America, such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

I was not the only one targeted. Another 21 of my colleagues at El Faro were hacked—226 instances in all. Hackers entered our phones as if they were their own, without discriminating: the newspapers’ reporters, administrative workers, and the executive team were all targeted on more than one occasion. Most of the attacks happened at moments when our reporters were investigating sensitive issues. In my case, the spying started when I received the first tips that the government of president Nayib Bukele was negotiating with MS-13, a gang which is considered a terrorist organization in El Salvador and the U.S. They spied on me during the entire process of investigation and continued when we reported that the talks also included MS-13’s rival gang: Barrio 18. Hackers also spied on us when we were investigating tips that some officials used to steal public resources during the pandemic state of emergency. They accessed a colleague’s phone when she discovered that, indeed, the ruling party used public funds for political ends. They got into our editor-in-chief’s phone 42 times, and viewed our director’s phone activity for 167 days.

The obsessive manner of the spying on us had one silver lining: because the experts chanced upon that connection to my phone as it happened, they were able to conclude that the attacks were coming from inside El Salvador. It seems obvious, but normally governments accused of spying on journalists are able to claim that the analysis isn’t geographically conclusive about the origin of the attack. Since the Pegasus software is only sold to governments and state intelligence agencies, we can put two and two together and reach the conclusion, cautiously, that the author of this illegal spying operation is a government in El Salvador.

In addition to El Faro, at least 15 other journalists from four other Salvadoran media outlets were also infected with Pegasus, as well as activists from civil society organizations that the Bukele regime considers opponents.

Read more: El Salvador Is Betting on Bitcoin to Rebrand the Country — and Strengthen the President’s Grip

When the hacking report came out, we said what we had to say: the journalists targeted spoke about the anger and the fear that an invasion of privacy like this induces. We said that this is an attack on the right of citizens to be informed and therefore on democracy. We said that this operation puts our sources at risk. We said that this technology is extremely dangerous in the hands of rulers who appear to want absolute control over not only the state, but also the truth. Rulers who don’t accept any narrative of reality that doesn’t cast them as heroic caudillos. And we have said—many, many times—that they won’t stop us, that we will keep doing journalism in spite of it all. And I wholeheartedly believe all of those things.

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But inside my body, there’s a taste of fear that I didn’t have before. There’s a growing certainty that makes me scared: that the Salvadoran government is just getting started with us.

There will be a brief backlash against these abuses—and then it will die down. There will be another backlash if, one day, one of my colleagues at El Faro has to go into exile because of threats—and then it will die down. I have no doubt that there will be another when one of us is accused of something by the regime’s prosecutors, convicted by the regime’s judges, and has their appeal denied by the regime’s magistrates, ending up in the prison system, directed by one of the officials that we have named in corruption investigations. And another when the regime approves a draconian law on foreign agents and tries to strip El Faro of its legal status and freeze our accounts. When they raid our offices and confiscate our cellphones and computers or some fanatic of the regime ends up beating up a reporter, I am sure there will be further outrage.

In his totalitarian zeal, Bukele has slammed the door on interventions by the international community and destroyed El Salvador’s relationship with our main trading partner and diplomatic influence, the U.S., where more than two million Salvadorans live.

That’s one of the reasons I feel certain that all these backlashes will steadily fizzle out, as the regime moves on to its next tactic. Another reason is because it has all already happened in nearby Nicaragua, to our colleagues at El Confidencial, under the regime of Daniel Ortega, and to many other outlets in many other authoritarian-led countries.

Today, doing journalism in El Salvador means living with this certainty. What is coming is a hard road, and probably an unavoidable one.

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