Freedom of Expression

Press Release R96/17

Office of the Special Rapporteur expresses concern over alleged spying targeting journalists and human rights defenders in Mexico and urges the State to conduct a thorough and independent investigation


July 12, 2017


Washington, D.C. - The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses concern over allegations that journalists and human rights defenders in Mexico would have been the targets of illegal spying and urges the State to perform an independent and thorough investigation.


According to information disseminated by civil society organizations, between January 2015 and August 2016, 97 attempts of infection of the mobile phones of journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers and politicians with a malicious software (malware) for spying known as "Pegasus" had been documented. In line with this information, the malware would affect the smartphone, allowing "access to files stored on the computer, as well as to contacts, messages, and emails. The malware also gets permissions to use, without the target knowing, the microphone and camera of the device." The events were also reported and investigated by The New York Times and other independent experts.


Among the 19 people who would have been target of "Pegasus" infection attempts in Mexico are journalists’ Carmen Aristegui and Carlos Loret de Mola, human-rights defenders Mario Patrón, Santiago Aguirre and Stephanie Brewer (PRODH Center) and at least one member of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) created in November 2014 through an agreement between the IACHR, the Mexican State, and representatives of the 43 disappeared students in Ayotzinapa. At the time of the reported attacks, the victims were investigating and/or reporting on events of substantial public interest and-or defending serious human rights violations.


During the hearing on Justice and Impunity in Mexico, held on July 6, 2017 during the 163th Period of Sessions of the IACHR, participant human rights organizations expressed their concern regarding the allegations of surveillance against individuals who are critical of the Mexican government. Moreover, they considered that the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) "cannot ensure an impartial and autonomous investigation," since its criminal investigation agency is one of the entities that allegedly had acquired the aforementioned malware. In this context, they stated that "the only way towards justice is through the establishment of an international panel of experts." Similarly, during the hearing on the Follow-Up Mechanism to the Ayotzinapa Case, Mexico, which also took place within the framework of the 163th Period of Sessions of the IACHR, civil society organization PRODH Center denounced spying attempts against its members.


During the mentioned hearings, the State indicated that the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression (Feadle) initiated an investigation on those incidents and those affected had been invited to render their statements and other needed elements in order to bring the investigation forward. Likewise, it was informed that Feadle had proposed the establishment of collaborations with national and international agencies in order to "strengthen any investigation and determine, in such case, the corresponding responsibilities."


The Office of the Special Rapporteur notes that according to press release DGC/203/17, dated June 21, 2017, the Mexican National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) ordered different agencies of the federal government (including the Secretariat of National Defense SEDENA, the Secretariat of the Marine SEMA, the Center for Research and National Security and the PGR) to "implement actions so that, in case of having surveillance programs capable of intervening communications of telephone and computer devices, refrain from using it against journalists, civil society organizations and human rights defenders, as well as against any other person in contravention of the constitutional legal order." At the same time, it was requested that "if information has been obtained through this type of programs, refrain from using it or disseminating it and its legality is assessed by the competent authorities" and that "the investigation of the facts is carried out with professionalism, thoroughness, objectivity and diligence."


Also, this office observes that, in a joint press release issued on July 10, 2017, the Mexican government expressed "the rejection of any act that violates freedom of expression and the right to privacy of individuals."


The Office of the Special Rapporteur recalls that the use of any surveillance program or system in private communications should be clearly and precisely established by law, genuinely exceptional and selective, must be strictly limited to the needs to meet compelling objectives such as the investigation of serious crime as defined by legislation, and have prior judicial control. The surveillance of communications and the interference of privacy which exceed what is stipulated by law and are oriented to aims that differ from those which the law permits or are carried out clandestinely must be harshly punished. Such illegitimate interference includes actions carried out for political reasons against human rights defenders, journalists and the media for political purposes as well as to uncover their sources.


The Office of the Special Rapporteur urges the Mexican State to conduct a thorough and independent investigation into the allegations and, where appropriate, prosecute and punish those responsible. In particular, the Office of the Special Rapporteur calls the State to investigate the alleged involvement of government entities with these events and, to that effect, make use of all available legal and institutional mechanisms to provide the investigation with all guarantees of independence and impartiality, in consultation with civil society and those affected.


In any case, the State should guarantee the right of all persons to access public information regarding surveillance or spying programs, their scope and existing controls. This obligation covers information on its regulatory framework, contracts for the acquisition of these programs, protocols and procedures for authorization, targeting and data management, as well as information on the use and control of these techniques. Under no circumstances, journalists, members of the media, or members of civil society who disseminate information on this type of surveillance program, because they considered it to be of public interest, may be subject to further sanctions. This obligation should be met without compromise of the right to access to justice and the privacy of those who may have been affected or suffered attempts of infection with this kind of software.


The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression was created by the IACHR to encourage the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the hemisphere, given the fundamental role this right plays in consolidating and developing the democratic system.