Press under Attack – Digital Strategies to Intimidate Journalists in Latin America

Pegasus attacks in El Salvador: spyware used to target journalists and activists

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NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware has been used to infect the devices of 35 Salvadoran journalists and activists between July 2020 and November 2021. This breaking information, initially flagged by journalists who tested their devices using Amnesty International’s Mobile Verification Toolkit, was analyzed and corroborated by Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline, The Citizen Lab, Amnesty International, Front Line Defenders, Fundación Acceso, and SocialTIC. Read The Citizen Lab’s technical report.

Read the full statement.

“NSO Group’s tentacles continue to spread across the globe, crushing the privacy and rights of journalists and activists into oblivion,” said Angela Alarcón, Latin America & the Caribbean Campaigner at Access Now. “Revelations that Pegasus software has been used to unjustly spy in El Salvador may not come as a complete surprise, but there is no match to our outrage.”

While the instigator of this targeting has not yet been confirmed, the revelations come against a backdrop of ongoing government-led censorship and harassment targeting independent media in El Salvador, and NSO Group’s repeated claims that it only sells Pegasus spyware to governments. Many of the targeted journalists work with El Faro and Gato Encerrado, local media groups that have faced constant persecution throughout Bukele’s presidency. 

The investigation reveals one of the most persistent cases of known Pegasus infections of a journalist: a single device reinfected over 40 times. Several infections occurred after the Pegasus Project revelations in July, indicating that the attackers were likely aware of the widespread denouncement of Pegasus use — including by human rights organizations and U.N. experts — but infected regardless.

Infecting people’s devices with Pegasus spyware is a very serious violation of their rights,” said Gaspar Pisanu, Latin America Policy Manager at Access Now. “This is a clear attempt to suppress and control the free press in El Salvador — no government, no corporation has the right to do that. We demand justice.

Through an open statement, Access Now and a number of human rights organizations are urgently calling on:

  • States to implement an immediate moratorium on the sale, transfer, and use of such surveillance technology;
  • The government of El Salvador to immediately stop harassing journalists and human rights defenders, start an investigation through the Attorney General, and comply with IACHR recommendations and precautionary measures;
  • The U.N. to denounce and investigate human rights violations by states facilitated through NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, and to offer support for inquiries into the abuse;
  • The Organization of American States to continue monitoring the situation, and convene an urgent Permanent Council meeting on spyware use; and
  • The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to push El Salvador to comply with the precautionary measure granted to El Faro, and reactivate the Integration and Timely Integrated Crisis Response Room mechanism for monitoring the situation. 

Journalists and activists who suspect their devices may be infected can immediately contact Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline

Read the statement.