By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
SAN SALVADOR (Worthy News) – Dozens of journalists from a leading news site in El Salvador were reportedly targeted with telephone spyware in the most extensive attack yet discovered using the Pegasus software that has been used by governments worldwide.
The Washington Post newspaper reported Wednesday that at least 22 journalists of the Salvadoran news site El Faro were spied upon through their smartphones.
El Faro is known for its hard-hitting investigations into the government of President Nayib Bukele.
The journalists were among at least 35 people in El Salvador whose iPhones were hacked with Pegasus between July 2020 and November 2021, said the Toronto-based Citizen Lab and other groups.
Also targeted were human rights activists and reporters for other news organizations.
In a statement, the government denied responsibility and said it was not a client of the Israeli-based NSO Group, the creator of Pegasus.
The spyware allows its operators to remotely control smartphones, collecting location records, files, photographs, recordings, contact lists, emails, passwords, and encrypted communications.
While initially welcomed as reform-minded, Bukele turned into an authoritarian leader critics day when El Faro produced some explosive stories.
In September 2020, the news site reported that the Bukele government had secretly negotiated a deal in which the MS-13 gang would refrain from bloody public murders and channel votes to the ruling party in exchange for benefits for its incarcerated leaders.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden administration has made similar allegations, which Salvadoran authorities have denied.
Bukele regularly accused the news site of tax evasion and money laundering — charges it denies — and deported a Mexican journalist, Daniel Lizárraga, working as its editor.
The cases in El Salvador add to the findings of the Pegasus Project, an international consortium of 17 news organizations on abuses of spyware.
Hungary, a European Union nation, was among other countries reportedly using Pegasus against critical journalists and other government opponents.
In November, tech giant Apple alerted 23 Salvadoran journalists and several civil-society activists that state-sponsored attackers might have targeted their devices.
Last year, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission called for security measures to protect 34 journalists at El Faro, saying their “right to life and personal safety was at risk.”
The U.S. Commerce Department blacklisted NSO Group in November because of the misuse of Pegasus.
The NSO Group said in a statement Wednesday it had not seen the report mentioned in the inquiry. However, “without confirming or denying specific customers, NSO’s firm stance on these issues is that the use of cyber tools to monitor dissidents, activists, and journalists is a severe misuse of any technology and goes against the desired use of such critical tools.”
It added: “NSO has proven in the past it has zero tolerance for these types of misuse by terminating multiple contracts.”