Freedom of Expression

Press release R10/20

IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur express deep concern over complaints of espionage of journalists, human rights defenders, judges, and political leaders in Colombia



January 16, 2020


Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression express deep concern over allegations of an alleged network of illegal espionage of the media, journalists, human rights defenders, judges, and political leaders, which would have been developed by state agents in Colombia. The IACHR urges the State to carry out an exhaustive and independent investigation regarding these activities and those responsible.


According to a journalistic investigation, these activities would have been carried out through special equipment that allows to capture cell phone calls and the installation of malware called "Invisible Man" on hacked devices. Among the victims would be the director of the magazine SEMANA Alejandro Santos, Judge Cristina Lombana, and Judge Carlos Reyes, both of the Supreme Court, likewise telephone calls and text messages from several journalists and activists would have been intercepted. According to the information available, the complaints would involve agents from the Army Cyber Intelligence Battalion [batallones de ciberinteligencia militar] (Bacib) and the Army's Information Security Counterintelligence Battalion [batallón de contrainteligencia de seguridad de la información del Ejército] (Bacsi).


On December 18, a commission of the Supreme Court of Justice and the Office of Special Investigations of the Attorney General's Office, raided the facilities of the Army Cyber Intelligence Battalion in Facatativá, in search of evidence regarding the complaint of illegal surveillance. Officers who were at the facility would have denied illegal activities and having software or computer tools. The Attorney General's Office would have confiscated several equipment. 


The Prosecutor's Office and the Colombian Attorney General's Office announced on Tuesday, January 14 that they will initiate an investigation to establish if these illegal activities were carried out and if the former Army Chief, Nicasio Martínez, was involved or knew the facts. "We will first have to look at what systems are used, if they have been used, and the tasks and results of that internal audit to start making a decision," said Fabio Espitia, attorney general in charge. Colombian President Iván Duque, and Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo, announced an internal investigation to establish whether there were illegal interceptions of Supreme Court judges, politicians, and journalists by Army offices.


The IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur remind that the use of any surveillance program or system in private communications must be established clearly and precisely by law, be truly exceptional, and be limited according to what is strictly necessary for the fulfillment of imperatives purposes such as the investigation of serious crimes defined in the legislation, and have prior judicial control. The surveillance of communications and interference with privacy that exceed what is stipulated by law, with purposes other than those authorized by law, or those that are carried out clandestinely, must be drastically sanctioned.


In recent years in Colombia, the illegal use of interceptions by various intelligence and cybersecurity services has been reported, such as the cases of the "Chuzadas del DAS" and the Andromeda Operation in 2018, the latter on interceptions of Peace negotiators. Investigations into the activities of DAS progressed slowly, as far as Operation Andromeda there are no results to date.


On both occasions, the IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur recalled that illegitimate interference includes as well those carried out against human rights defenders, journalists, and the media both for political reasons and to know their information sources. The IACHR urges the State to guarantee a thorough and independent investigation regarding the facts denounced and, where appropriate, prosecute and punish those responsible. In particular, the Office of the Special Rapporteur calls on the State to investigate the possible linking of state entities in these events and, to that end, to have all legal and institutional mechanisms at their disposal to provide guarantees of independence and impartiality to the investigation, in consultation with those affected.


The UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, David Kaye, issued in 2019 a report on "The Surveillance Industry and Human Rights" and noted that journalists are exposed to these surveillance methodologies, becoming deliberate targets of the same. He stressed that the three main types of surveillance are intercepting communications, hacking electronic devices (mobiles and computers), and monitoring mass communication flows. Selective surveillance encourages self-censorship and directly undermines the ability of journalists and human rights defenders to conduct their investigations and forge and maintain relationships with their sources of information. 


A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.


The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression was created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) with the aim of encouraging the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the hemisphere, given its fundamental role in consolidating and developing the democratic system.