The government of El Salvador has denied using the Israeli Pegasus software to spy on journalists and activists.
In a statement issued late Wednesday, spokeswoman Sofia Medina said the government of populist President Nayib Bukele was “not a client” of Israeli firm NSO Group, which owns Pegasus.
She was reacting to an investigation by Citizen Lab — a Canadian-based cyber security watchdog — which found that the mobile phones of 35 El Salvadoran journalists and NGO staff had been infected with Pegasus spyware between July 2020 and November 2021.
Without pointing a finger at the government, Citizen Lab said “the hacking took place while organizations were reporting on sensitive issues involving the administration of President Bukele.”
It did not identify the culprit, but said “there is a range of circumstantial evidence pointing to a strong El Salvador government nexus.”
Pegasus can turn smartphones into pocket spying devices, allowing the user to read the target’s messages, track their location, and even turn on their camera and microphone without their knowledge. Whoever did it was not the government, Medina insisted.
“I reiterate that the government of El Salvador does not have the resources or the licences to use this type of software,” she said.
The government was investigating the possibility that Pegasus “and other systems” had been used on Salvadoran territory, added Medina, claiming there were indications that public officials had also been targeted by spyware.
Populist Bukele, 40, came to power in 2019 on a campaign against corruption and gang-related crime. But the social media-savvy president is accused by detractors of increasing authoritarianism.
In 2020, in a bid to intimidate MPs into approving a loan to finance an anti-crime plan, the president ordered heavily armed police and soldiers to storm parliament.
The move led to lawmakers calling or a congressional committee to declare Bukele “mentally incapable” of governing — a move he denounced as an “attempted parliamentary coup.”
Bukele was accused of breaking electoral rules in campaigning for his New Ideas party ahead of a legislative vote last year in which his allies won an absolute majority, giving him far-reaching powers.
The overhauled Congress soon dismissed all the judges of the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber, as well as the attorney general.
The new-look chamber in turn gave the green light for Bukele to run for re-election in 2024 despite a constitutional one-term limit.
Last week, Poland’s ruling party leader admitted the country bought Pegasus spyware, but dismissed claims by Citizen Lab that it was used against the opposition.