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PEN International condemns the surveillance of journalists, activists and human rights defenders in Mexico

Thursday 22 June 2017 - 1:00am

22 June 2017

PEN International is deeply concerned about the cases of espionage against journalists, activists and human rights defenders in Mexico. An article published by The New York Times on 19 June, and an investigation by Citizen Lab, University of Toronto ( y, published in June 2017), have revealed that highly sophisticated malware, sold exclusively to governments, has been used to spy on mobile telephones and acquire personal information. “Mexico’s most prominent human rights lawyers, journalists and anti-corruption activists have been targeted by advanced spyware sold to the Mexican government on the condition that it be used only to investigate criminals and terrorists”, noted the American newspaper.

Among the cases identified in the investigation were those of journalists Carlos Loret de Mola, Carmen Aristegui and her son, Daniel Lizárraga and Salvador Camanera; as well as human rights defenders Mario Patron, Stephanie Brewer, Santiago Aguirre, leaders in Centro Prodh; Juan Pardiñas and Alexandra Zapata, directors at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (Instituto Mexicano por la Competitividad). The evidence, compiled by Citizen Lab from January 2015 to October 2016, suggests a correlation between their work and attempts to infect their devices with malware; evidence shows that at critical moments in their work, there was an increase in the number of attempts of infection.

Carmen Aristegui, commented in a press conference: “What did the President of the Republic intend to do with these issues? [...] Where is that information? What did they do with it?”.  Carlos Loret de Mola, in his article published in El Universal newspaper, wrote: “(…) espionage opens the door to go further: intimidation, harassment, censorship…”.

Nevertheless, although it is not possible to confirm with certainty who used the malicious software because the spyware does not leave any traces of its origin, it seems likely, however, that it was used by the Mexican authorities as the malware is sold exclusively to governments.

Article 16 of the Political Constitution of Mexico, defends privacy and data protection. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Mexico is State Party, in its Article 17, defines that: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks”.

PEN International condemns the use of such technology for purpose of intimidation and, in consequence, censorship. PEN International welcomes the decision of the Attorney General's Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) to open an investigation into crimes of intervention in private communications and illicit access to systems and equipment. PEN urges the federal authorities, through the PGR, to carry out this process in a timely and expeditious manner, and to identify and prosecute those responsible for surveillance that violates the activity of journalists and human rights defenders, to ensure freedom of expression in Mexico.

PEN urges the Mexican authorities to protect the rights of journalists, human rights defenders and activists, and, in particular, urges its officials not to violate the right to freedom of expression and information.

In its Declaration on Digital Freedom, PEN recognises the promise of digital media as a means of fulfilling the fundamental right of free expression.  Citizens in many countries have faced severe restrictions in their access to and use of digital media, while governments have exploited digital technologies to suppress freedom of expression and to surveil individuals. The private sector and in particular technology companies have at times facilitated government censorship and surveillance.

PEN therefore declares the following:

  1. All persons have the right to express themselves freely through digital media without fear of reprisal or persecution.
  2. All persons have the right to seek and receive information through digital media.
  3. All persons have the right to be free from government surveillance of digital media.
  4. The private sector, and technology companies in particular, are bound by the right to freedom of expression and human rights.