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

Press under attack – digital strategies to intimidate journalists in Latin America

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Since the very first month of the year, there have been digital attacks against the press in Latin America. Outrageous revelations about the use of Pegasus spyware in El Salvador set the tone for the kind of difficulties journalists and the press would face during 2022, not only in said country but also across the region. 

When content is inconvenient for groups in power, such as authorities, companies, and organized crime groups, the press becomes a target of attacks. On top of this, corruption and blurred division of powers in some countries make it hard to know for certain who is on the other side and whether it will be possible to get some transparency, protection, and justice in the struggle to vindicate violated rights. 

While the scope of new technologies has been useful to promote human rights, it has also facilitated attacks against and the silencing, both personally and systematically, of journalists and the media in general. Both targets are interrelated but are affected in different ways. 

To understand the potential tendencies for 2023, here is a recap of some strategies of digital attacks used against the media and journalists in Latin America to undermine their privacy and freedom of expression. 

Attacks on privacy

El Salvador

In January, with the collaboration of other organizations, we reported that there were 35 confirmed victims of Pegasus in El Salvador. Out of these victims, the vast majority —31 people— had jobs in the media or were journalists or freelance columnists. The government denied being involved in such attacks and the investigation conducted by the prosecutor’s office has been particularly slow.

Moreover, throughout the year, Salvadoran authorities made public policy changes that raised the alarm about their potential to jeopardize civic and journalistic spaces. Risks to privacy include a) reform in the criminal code to include “undercover digital agents,” which would enable “undercover digital operations” once the prosecutor general —instead of a judge— gives their approval. And b) reform in the Telecommunications Law, currently pending publication on the official gazette before it can enter into force. This reform requires telecommunications companies to provide information about call logs and electronic communications. The Journalists Association of El Salvador pointed out that the law needs to ensure this reform will not be “a tool for the persecution of journalists and human rights advocates.”


Mexico

The Presidency announced that the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA) would be tasked with installing antennas and towers for the “Internet for all” program, some of which would be placed in National Guard headquarters. This is particularly worrisome after the information leaked by the Guacamaya group, which shows several espionage activities conducted by that entity. Challenges related to internet security and privacy could particularly affect rural and community broadcasters, who usually have fewer internet access options.

Additionally, local and international organizations have reported three new victims, including a journalist, of Pegasus espionage. A few days later, a congressman from the opposition was also a victim of it. This report clashes head-on with the Presidency’s declarations, both before and after the revelations, claiming that the current government does not conduct espionage activities. 

Attacks on freedom of expression

Brazil

Journalist Patrícia Campos Mello has stated that online violence is the new form of censorship, given that, nowadays, social networks are filled with misinformation and, at the same time, there are campaigns to intimidate and defame certain people.


Cuba

After a report about the protests on July 11, 2021, journalists from “El Toque” pointed out that, from that moment on, the government has been trying to hinder journalistic work by cutting off or slowing down internet services. 

Similarly, Journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez has reported that news portals that are against dictatorship are blocked and harassed, as was the case for “El Estornudo.

In addition to the persecution of journalists and the media, Cuba has been taking extreme measures, such as internet shutdowns. Some media have reported that during protests, internet service provider Etecsa shut down their services. This was also documented by Access Now reports and the #KeepItOn coalition.


El Salvador 

The Legislative Assembly —which is governed by the Executive Power— has passed a measure to sanction any person, including journalists, who shares information about criminal groups. This legislative reform, popularly known as “Gag Law,” imposes prison terms of up to 15 years for those who fail to comply with it. This creates a prior restraint that prevents the media from reporting about issues related to gangs and several topics related to human rights violations under the framework of the country’s security measures.

Besides regulations that seek to criminalize journalists and the media, there are incentives to create technology solutions for cyber patrolling in social networks. When there are no sufficient safeguards, this type of platform monitoring can be used excessively to remove reported content, as in the case of Mexico. 

Another risk is digital threats to the media and journalists, who are usually targeted by coordinated “troll” attacks. As pointed out by journalists and the Inter-American Press Association, these trolls are often hired by government agents.


Nicaragua

In 2020, various laws were passed in order to provide a regulatory framework to legalize the persecution of political opponents and journalists and impose prison sentences. Such regulations include the Foreign Agents Law, the Life Imprisonment Law, and the Cybercrime Law. 

As a result, there have been reports on cases where journalists have been found guilty of committing crimes when they were merely reporting on the country’s events. For example, sports Journalist Miguel Mendoza was found guilty of “conspiring against national integrity,” a crime established by the Cybercrime Law, which allowed the Prosecutor to request a nine-year imprisonment sentence.

Mexico

In the last few years, Mexico has been one of the countries with the highest number of journalists killed. When it comes to women journalists, they face a double challenge. On the one hand, attacks that are inherent to their job and, on the other, generalized violence against women, which has been minimized and made invisible. This has enabled an increase in digital violence targeted at women journalists, which, according to an International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and UNESCO report, includes physical and sexual threats —even death threats— doxxing, trolling, fake videos, identity theft, smear campaigns, criminal harassment, sexual harassment, and censorship when platforms unjustifiably take down content. 

Consequences

Imposing surveillance measures, intruding on privacy, creating regulations to sanction journalistic activities, removing content, blocking websites, cutting off internet access, and persecuting individuals through legal mechanisms all have a chilling effect on victims, which silences them immediately or prevents them from further reporting. 

Unlike other types of censorship where content is blocked or removed, targeted surveillance and intrusions of privacy —e.g., the use of Pegasus— are an additional incentive to self-censorship, as people fear for their own safety and the safety of their loved ones and colleagues. 

The impact of targeted surveillance on women is even more worrisome, as the use of the information obtained through attacks may be related to their bodies, and threats and smear campaigns may have sexual implications. Moreover, women journalists usually limit their participation, retire or withdraw themselves from digital public discussions so as to avoid being a target.

In the case of reforms that grant more power for the state to remove content, punish certain types of online expression or intrude on citizens’ privacy, the potential abuse of new legal mechanisms and tools is a cause of concern. Here, necessity and proportionality principles may be overlooked. In addition, the lack of checks and balances and transparency mechanisms makes it difficult to prove the abusive implementation of such regulations. 

Finally, in order for journalists and other vulnerable groups to face digital security challenges, Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline provides real-time, direct technical assistance and advice. 

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