Journalists, activists and human rights defenders gave a joint press conference in Mexico City on 19 June to accuse the government of conducting a major illegal surveillance operation. The accusations are based on a report published by Citizen Lab, Article 19, Red en Defensa (R3D) and Social Tic that was the subject of a New York Times story the same day.
At least six journalists are reported to have received bogus SMS messages with a link that, if clicked on, installs Pegasus, a spyware sold by the Israeli company NSO Group that provides access to all the content on a phone.
In an initial response to the allegations, a government spokesman tweeted: “There is absolutely no proof that Mexican government agencies were responsible for the alleged espionage described in the article.”
But yesterday, the office of Mexico’s attorney-general announced that the allegations would be investigated by the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE).
“We firmly condemn these hacking attempts and call on the Mexican authorities to shed all possible light on this matter without delay,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of RSF’s Latin America bureau.
“The illegal surveillance of journalists constitutes a grave violation of the freedom to inform and the confidentiality of sources, especially in a country in which it is already particularly difficult and risky to cover corruption.”
Those targeted by Pegasus include such well-known journalists as Carlos Loret de Mola of Televisa and El Universal, and Carmen Aristegui of CNN Mexico and Aristegui Noticias, whose son was also targeted.
It was Aristegui who exposed the Casa Blanca scandal implicating President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2014. She said she received more than 20 personalized messages from different quarters containing such links.
More than 76 spyware infection attempts of this kind have been reported in Mexico, mostly targeting journalists.
RSF already drew attention to the dangers of Mexican government abuse of surveillance in a report published on 12 March in the wake of earlier revelations. Nowadays a lucrative business, cyber-surveillance is one of the favourite weapons of the world’s press freedom predators.
Mexico is ranked 147th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.