Miami (February 2, 2022) - The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) described as "serious implications for press freedom" and "possible reprisals" against journalism a recent reform to El Salvador's Code of Criminal Procedure that creates the figure of the "digital undercover agent."
On February 1, Congress approved five amendments to the Criminal Procedural Code to combat computer crimes. The reform, among other changes, authorizes "digital undercover operations that are necessary" with the approval of the Attorney General's Office.
IAPA President Jorge Canahuati expressed his concern about the consequences and severe implications for press freedom and said that these are measures of official retaliation against journalism. "With the recent history of cyber espionage against more than 30 Salvadoran journalists and media, there is concern that these measures could be arbitrarily used by the government with the aim of monitoring and muzzling the work of the press."
Carlos Jornet, chairman of the IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, added: "We consider that these measures that legalize digital espionage endanger investigative journalism and the confidentiality of its sources, which will be detrimental to the public's right to know."
Canahuati, executive president of Grupo Opsa, of Honduras, and Jornet, editor of the newspaper La Voz del Interior of Argentina, said that digital surveillance measures should not violate press freedom or human rights principles. They recalled the provisions of the Salta Declaration: "Authorities must not use digital surveillance mechanisms to violate the liberties and privacy of citizens, except in cases where a legitimate goal is being pursued in accordance with the provisions of human rights conventions. Widespread surveillance is unacceptable under any circumstances."
They also alluded to Article 8 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression approved in 2000 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Article 8 states: "Every social communicator has the right to keep his/her source of information, notes, personal and professional archives confidential."
The reform of the Criminal Procedural Code also authorizes the presentation of digital evidence in judicial proceedings. The evidence would include "digital documents, electronic messages, images, videos, data and any type of information that is stored, received or transmitted through information and communication technologies or utilizing any electronic device."
Weeks ago, forensic tests showed that the Pegasus software was used to intercept 37 cell phones of journalists that work for El Faro, Gato Encerrado, La Prensa Gráfica, Disruptiva, El Diario de Hoy, and El Mundo media.
Another measure considered alarming is the approval on January 27 in the Constitutional Chamber of a resolution that authorizes the Attorney General's Office (FGR) to act criminally against possible evaders without waiting to exhaust administrative channels.
IAPA is a non-profit organization dedicated to defending and promoting freedom of the press and expression in the Americas. It comprises more than 1,300 publications from the western hemisphere; and is based in Miami, Florida, United States.