Unnerving experiences include being a target for one of the most prominent spyware programs around the globe. 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 hacking was not committed by the Salvadoran government. It is led by President Nayib Bikele (a very young autocrat). It claims it does not have the licenses or the funds to purchase and run such software.It has been steady in its relationships 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.
He has used state institutions and defamation to target us. We were accused of money laundering on national TV, and threatened to bring us to trial to damage the reputations of religious public officials. It appears now that the Bukele government has been spying on us for over 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 wasn’t the only target. 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. The attacks took place at times when reporters were studying sensitive subjects. The spying began in my case when I was informed that Nayib Bukele, president of Pakistan had given me the tips. I was in negotiations with MS-13. A gang that is considered terrorist in El Salvador and the U.S. They tracked me through the whole investigation process and then continued after we reported that they were also involved in the negotiations. included MS-13’s rival gang: Barrio 18. We were also tracked by hackers as we tried to investigate tips from officials. Steal public resourcesDuring the emergency pandemic. They accessed a colleague’s phone when she discovered that, indeed, the ruling party Public money was used to support political goals. They got into our editor-in-chief’s phone 42 times, and viewed our director’s phone activity for 167 days.
One silver lining to the obsessive spying was that experts discovered the connection between my phone and mine as they happened. They were then able to determine that the attackers were from 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. Pegasus software cannot be purchased by governments or state intelligence agencies. Therefore, it is possible to add two things together to reach the cautious conclusion that El Salvador is the source of the illegal spying operation.
El Faro was not the only one infected. At least fifteen other journalists were also infected by Pegasus from Salvadoran media outlets.
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We said the following when the hacking report was published: The journalists who were targeted talked about anger and fear at the invasion of privacy that this causes. This is an attack against democracy and citizens’ right to information. This operation could endanger our resources, we said. This technology can be extremely dangerous for rulers, who seem to desire absolute control of the state and 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. I believe everything they say.
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. The regime also approves an draconian law regarding foreign agents, and attempts to remove El Faro from its legal status. We are then forced into prison. They will surely continue to outrage us when they take our phones and computers from our offices or attack a reporter.
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 Salvadorans number more than two millions 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. It has already occurred in Nicaragua to El Confidencial colleagues, as well to other outlets in authoritarian-led nations.
Living in El Salvador, journalism today is about living with that certainty. The road ahead is difficult and likely unavoidable.