Ezequiel Barrera: “They tapped my phone nine times”

Clara Zid, March 2022

Ezequiel Barrera

“When I found out that my phone had been tapped nine times, I felt that I could no longer be safe, not even at home. I felt that my privacy had been violated”. This is Ezequiel Barrera, editor-in-chief and co-founder of the independent digital media GatoEncerrado in El Salvador. At least three journalists from his newsroom discovered in September 2021 that their mobile phones had been infected with the Pegasus software, which gives the attacker complete access to the phone’s activities and stored information.

Mexican journalists were victims of Pegasus back in 2016/2017 and El Salvador is now the second Latin American country to be attacked by the spy program with at least 35 victims, most of them journalists from the independent media El Faro and GatoEncerrado. The actual figure is not certain because only iPhones have been investigated. It more complicated to confirm its presence on Android devices, which in the case of GatoEncerrado’s newsroom are in the majority: “We suspect that the other colleagues have been tapped, but we were only able to carry out tests with Citizen Lab and Access Now on iPhones“.

GatoEncerrado was born in 2014 as a rebellion against the lack of ethics of the traditional media, explains Ezequiel. Its mission is to be different, in a region of the world that is quite environmentally impacted but also corrupt and violent in everything from a human rights and gender perspective, says Ezequiel. The team of almost 20 staff is young, with an average age of 25, half of them women.

“We clearly think that the government of El Salvador is behind the tapping of our phones”

Who do you suspect being behind the tapping?

There are two reasons that makes us quite certain that the government of El Salvador is behind it. The first is that the NSO group, the company that created the Pegasus software, confirmed that they only sell to states and, if it is operating in El Salvador, the inference is that the government of El Salvador is using it.

And the second reason?

Because there were issues… conversations between GatoEncerrado and El Faro about a joint story that no one else knew about, such as the subject of the investigation and sources we had talked to. Suddenly the government held a press conference to clarify issues about our investigation that there was no way for them to know about before the story was published without having tapped our phones.

What has the government responded after the claims of using Pegasus against journalists?

The prosecutor said tersely that he opened an investigation, which we do not trust because the current Prosecutor’s Office responds to the interests of Casa Presidencial.

But there were MPs who were also spied on, weren’t there?

Apple sent a letter to journalists, activists and even officials saying that their phones had been tapped. Some of the pro-government deputies got the mail and came out saying that they were afraid that the president himself was being watched and persecuted with this technology. That is all that has been said. On 16 March 2022 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted us a hearing to discuss Pegasus. The government was invited to explain its position and it tried to disassociate itself from the case. The prosecutor’s office also acted as if it were the government’s mouthpiece and defended it without having completed the investigation, saying that it does not spy on journalists. The Commission will recommend an independent investigation.

Ezequiel Barrera

What security measures are in place to prevent you from being spied on again?

Citizen Lab has explained to us that there is very little that can be done other than to stop using the mobile phone, but that is impossible for our work. We are taking some measures such as not having important conversations with sources on our mobile phones: we make appointments to see each other. And we use code language to meet. In the meeting with the source, they don’t take their mobile phones with them, and we don’t talk about important issues with mobile phones in the room. Citizen Lab and Access Now have proposed that we check our devices from time to time.

What a nuisance!

What worries us most is that sources are increasingly shutting down because they feel that talking to journalists can mean some kind of concern for their jobs and their lives.

More and more journalists are being spied on with Pegasus – can this scourge be stopped?

I don’t think this is going to end. The things we are discovering are things that help them improve the technology to make it less and less detectable. Authoritarian regimes will continue to implement spying through technology. There will come a time when the technology will leave no trace and we won’t know if we have been spied on. I don’t think this is going to stop.

In what context is this happening, how is the relationship between investigative journalism and the government of El Salvador?

We have to face different attacks on several fronts. The first is that President Nayib Bukele has been clear in a narrative he has against El Faro, GatoEncerrado and Revista Factum. He has mentioned us on national radio and television networks and social networks, to speak ill of us. He has a campaign in which he attacks us directly because we have international funding. He considers that this funding is to campaign against him and he distorts the information so that his followers join in this hatred that he is generating against journalists. He mentions us saying that we are media with a clear agenda to destabilize the country.

“They are using government institutions to prosecute journalists”

Another front is economic persecution…

Yes. For example, El Faro is being prosecuted for allegedly laundering the money of those who finance it. We are also worried that one day an audit might come, that’s why we keep fairly orderly accounts, we are afraid that they might come to bring a legal case against us to shut us up and destroy our legal status, so that we can’t continue doing the work we do. They are using government institutions to prosecute journalists.

Do you have more open fronts?

We often get threats from businessmen who feel offended when we ask them about environmental crimes they are committing and threaten to sue us for defamation.

What effect does all this have on social media?

We receive waves of attacks, especially against our female journalists, who are harassed on social networks. The attackers make montages where it looks like our journalists are with deputies doing immoral things, and they say very ugly and bad things about them, threatening to find them in person to practically rape or kill them. This is the level of attacks on social networks. A few weeks ago the Vice President of the Republic of El Salvador, Félix Ulloa, continued his verbal attacks on social networks and we responded with an editorial.

Do you fear for your physical security?

Yes, there have been documented occasions when female colleagues have left the newsroom and have seen unusual activity of cars following them, people taking photographs of them while they are sitting in a restaurant, strange things that we have been documenting. Nothing has happened so far but it does not remove the uncertainty that they may attack the physical integrity of the colleagues above all.

Why is GatoEncerrado so uncomfortable for the people in power, and what has been your main research?

Just as the previous government was about to leave office, we revealed a series of contracts for the children of civil servants who were sent to foreign service, to London, Brazil, Canada, etc. We are very proud of this investigation because it catapulted us to become a reference in journalism. Another was a lake that is the last ecological jewel of El Salvador and it has been captured by elites who are building large constructions that impact the environment.

Have you investigated Nayib Bukele as well?

Yes, we revealed how the government is meeting with institutions that should be autonomous, such as the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which has caused a lot of talk in the country. Or how femicides are being dealt with; there is a discourse that they have gone down since the arrival of President Bukele, but the data says otherwise.

How do you see the future?

We are creating a strategy to diversify our income. The only financial supporters are international foundations. We do not want to depend only on them and we are looking for short-term solutions to ensure survival in the coming years.

And in terms of projects?

We want to make documentary series that reach streaming platforms, such as Netflix or similar. So in our medium-term future I see us producing series on the environmental impact in the dry corridor from Chiapas, Mexico, to the Arco Seco in Panama. It is time to get out of El Salvador and do more regional environmental coverage.

GatoEncerrado is hosted by Virtualroad.org since 2020.