Columns / Editorial

A Message to Our Sources after the Pegasus Revelations

Thursday, January 13, 2022
El Faro Editorial Board

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Our most recent investigation compiled evidence that at least 22 members of El Faro were illegally surveilled using the spyware Pegasus. Its developer, the Israeli company NSO Group, deals exclusively with governments.

The Citizen Lab, a digital laboratory that studies vulnerabilities in the internet threatening human rights, called the espionage launched against our organization unprecedented in the world due to its “obsessive” nature. The experts logged a total of 226 Pegasus attacks against the phones of our reporters, administrative staff, and board of directors. Some of the periods of surveillance against individual staff members spanned more than 260 days. The phones of journalists from other Salvadoran outlets also faced Pegasus attacks.

It’s evident to us that the only government interested in mounting such an espionage campaign against Salvadoran journalists is the government of El Salvador. This new aggression is completely coherent with the administration of President Nayib Bukele’s recurring attacks against El Faro, among them the use of public institutions to carry out a series of abusive financial audits, the threat by the president himself to open cases of money laundering and tax evasion, defamation lobbed from its powerful propaganda apparatus against our journalists, threats against our advertisers, constant harassment by trolls on social media, and the list goes on.

We understand that our journalism has put us on a collision course with a president who has managed to gain control — in some cases, illegally — of all of the state institutions, who has destroyed every avenue for citizens to demand public information, and who dismisses any truth other than his own and any reality that differs from that which proclaims him the sole interpreter of national history.

In the face of these attacks, we at El Faro have always responded with more journalism and better strategies to continue our work. We believe that public spaces are fundamental in reverting the annihilation of Salvadoran democracy.

To all of our sources in the past year and a half, we now reiterate what you learned in our latest investigation: That Salvadoran Pegasus operators have access to all of the data registered in our phones, including chats, audio files, videos, and contacts. They have intruded on our devices to watch our activities live and we believe, on some occasions, our calls and video calls. Now that we are certain, so are you.

One of the goals of the espionage campaign against us is to identify and then persecute our sources. It’s not the first time that this has happened: This government has submitted public employees that it suspects of speaking with El Faro to polygraph tests and, just this week, the Attorney General’s Office raided the workplaces of the prosecutors on the special unit that Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado dismantled in order to stop its investigations into this government’s covert negotiations with gangs and other corruption cases. He conducted the raids in search of evidence that they leaked information to us.

This regime has sought in multiple ways to sow fear among journalists’ sources, to let them know they are threatened. With each passing day it’s harder to be a journalist in El Salvador, but each day it’s harder to be a source to journalists. We’re well aware.

The orchestrators of this strategy know that journalism — in its current condition in El Salvador, lacking access to public information and accountability — is impossible without sources willing to trust a reporter and a newsroom. Citizens, politicians, diplomats, public and private sector employees, witnesses of crimes, and confidants of the powerful have trusted El Faro and decided that the press is the best and most efficient avenue to denounce what they see as arbitrary, unjust, and corrupt. 

That hasn’t changed under the Bukele administration: Without the trust of our sources inside and outside of the government, it would not have been possible for us to tell the public about the corruption in the pandemic response, the Bukele brothers’ secret plans to create a Salvadoran cryptocurrency, the government’s negotiations with gangs, the treasury minister’s resignation under pressure from the executive branch to wield the ministry to persecute critics, the theft of over a million dollars’ worth of food allotted for those affected by the pandemic by a criminal network led by the vice minister of justice and public security. The list of revelations goes on.

The espionage also looks to undermine public trust in El Faro as a receptor of information. That said, one of our ethical mandates is to protect our sources however we can.

Journalism is an instrument in the service of the citizenry, of the governed. It is never an instrument for the powerful, for the governors. It is one that can only completely fulfill its role when the public sees it as its own. Our sources confided in El Faro despite knowing the risks that it would entail, and the consequences to which they would be exposed. To each and every one of them: Thank you. We will continue developing strategies to offer more and better guarantees to those who confide in us. That will in turn provoke even more intense surveillance from the regime and greater attacks against our work.

We all know why: An authoritarian and corrupt government cannot bear critical investigative journalism that questions it and reveals its true nature.

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