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Journalists probing Salvadoran government were spied on using military-grade tech

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In El Salvador, dozens of journalists and activists have discovered that a military-grade spyware technology infiltrated their phones. This is a technology that is only sold to governments. At the online news site El Faro, 22 staffers were hacked. El Faro journalists had been investigating alleged corruption in the Salvadoran government, so have many of the other hacking victims. We're joined now by Julia Gavarrete, a reporter with El Faro.

Welcome.

JULIA GAVARRETE: Thank you so much, Ari. Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: How did you and your colleagues realize that your phone was being spied on?

GAVARRETE: The first person that realized was me. I was with another colleague, and we were having these kind of conversations that - we were - had these suspicions that something was happening. Sometimes, I felt that someone was reading my message, for example, if I was talking with a source or something like that. But in some other cases, well, the telephone turns (ph), like, a little bit slower, or the messages never were sent. So we were like, this is weird.

SHAPIRO: So you brought in this cybersecurity laboratory at the University of Toronto called CitizenLab, and they started to investigate. What did they find?

GAVARRETE: Well, when I talked to my editor at El Faro and I explained to him that they are 100% sure that my phone is infected by Pegasus, well, we start doing it with all my colleagues. They start doing the same thing. And for CitizenLab, it's very surprising that there were many cases happening in El Salvador. And that's why they described that this is the first time that they see something like that.

SHAPIRO: I mentioned that this spyware Pegasus is only sold to governments. What has the Israeli company that owns the technology said about who bought the spyware in Central America?

GAVARRETE: Well, that's a really good question that we want to know. But they are very specific when they mention that they only sell to government agencies. What we really want to know is that, you know, if there are contracts in El Salvador that are related with the government or if the government is using this software to spy journalists and people who are critics here in El Salvador, so we really want to understand who is behind this.

SHAPIRO: Have you asked El Salvador's government? What have officials said?

GAVARRETE: Well, we already asked them. We are waiting for their answer. We don't have, like, a official position.

SHAPIRO: They haven't denied it, but they haven't given you an answer at all.

GAVARRETE: Yeah, no. Well, right now we don't have any answer from them.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell me as a journalist how having this spyware on your device affects your ability to report?

GAVARRETE: When I realized that I was being targeted, I didn't start thinking not only as a journalist, I started thinking as a person that, you know, they are in my life. It's like they open a door, and they could see everything about me. And I know that I was very concerned about my sources because it's like you are always, you know, sharing information, like, very, very delicate information with your sources. And you know that you can put them in a very bad position because they are helping you. In the other hand, you have this other view. They have all my personal information. What are they going to do with that? So that means that they probably are trying to follow my family as well, so that's why I think it's very important for us to get answers after all of this.

SHAPIRO: How does this broadly fit into the atmosphere that journalists are experiencing in El Salvador? Is there a risk of the political environment becoming unsustainable for a digital newspaper like El Faro?

GAVARRETE: Yeah, totally. It's very hard to be in this scenario that you not only - to realize that you are not only being targeted, if you see how the attacks on social media are increasing and how this relationship with the government, it's very - in a very bad situation right now. Just because we are doing our work publishing what the government do with our money and with our resources, what we are seeing right now, it's a very, very complex situation that we haven't seen before.

SHAPIRO: Julia Gavarrete is a journalist with El Faro digital newspaper in El Salvador.

Thank you for speaking with us.

GAVARRETE: Thank you to you, Ari. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.