El Salvador: a stand against illegal cyber surveillance

Markus Spiske

28 March 2022 — On 16 March 2022, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) held a thematic hearing on human rights in the context of cyber-surveillance in El Salvador. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), with the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and other international organisations, take a stand against illegal cyber surveillance in Salvador.

On 16 March 2022, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) held a thematic hearing on human rights in the context of cyber surveillance in El Salvador. We appreciate that the Commission has given this space to shed light on —from the first-person testimony of the victims of these attacks— the digital harassment suffered not only by journalists and communicators, but also by activists and human rights defenders in El Salvador.

We have watched with concern the progressive deterioration of democracy in El Salvador, the attacks against opponents of the government, and the continuous reports of the use of Pegasus software to illegally spy on journalists, human rights defenders, and activists who oppose the government.

This even led the IACHR in February 2021 to determine the need to grant precautionary measures for 34 identified members of the digital newspaper El Faro due to the adverse context for journalism in El Salvador, since they had been victims of harassment, threats, intimidation and stigmatisation due to their reporting activities — mainly through social networks. However, the Salvadoran government has not only failed to adopt measures to remedy this situation, but the context has worsened and illegal espionage against Salvadorans continues to be perpetrated.

These acts are linked to other digital assaults that have been documented and which have a clear misogynist element. In fact, according to data from the Salvadoran Network of Women Human Rights Defenders (Red Salvadoreña de Defensoras de Derechos Humanos), cyber-stalking is the main form of aggression reported by women human rights defenders and female journalists. On March 27, 2022, an alert was issued, pointing out the death threats, sexual violence, and assault on homes and meeting places that were sent to the Colectiva Amorales and Majes Emputadas, through the hacking of the number of one of the groups’ members.

This renders vulnerable and defenceless all those who criticise or oppose the government of President Nayib Bukele. In addition, in the current Salvadoran context, there are insufficient guarantees ensuring respect for the fundamental rights of access to justice, due process and judicial protection, nor the enforcement of fundamental institutional counterweights central to any State governed by the rule of law.

Freedom of expression and the free exercise of journalism and the defence of human rights are fundamental pillars of any democratic country, which is why it is unacceptable that the acquisition and operation of spyware such as Pegasus be used as a tool against dissidents opposing the Salvadoran government. The defence of human rights and critical and independent journalism strengthen the democratic institutions that El Salvador has strived to build.

For all these reasons, we hope that the State will, this time, follow the Commission’s recommendations, and move forward efficiently and effectively in:
 the immediate ceasing of these attacks;
 the impartial clarification of the incidents and the imposition of sanctions on those responsible;
 in the comprehensive protection of the victims of these acts; and
 the establishment of conditions that guarantee the free exercise of journalism, full freedom of expression and the defence of human rights.

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