Attorney General of Paraguay opens investigation for alleged spying on journalists by military

The Attorney General of Paraguay ordered an investigation into the case of alleged espionage by the military forces of the country against a journalist, according to the Public Ministry and newspaper ABC Color.

The prosecutor’s decision came a day after ABC Color denounced the alleged spying against one of its reporters. The supposed spying was done in order to know who was leaking information about the alleged cases of corruption within the Armed Forces that the journalist was investigating.

In June, the newspaper published information about Lucía Duarte, wife of military commander General Luis Gonzaga Garcete, who may have used infrastructure and human resources of the Armed Forces to benefit a foundation that she oversaw and whose offices were located on military property, according to news agency EFE. In July, the Minister of National Defense gave the foundation a deadline of eight days to leave the facilities, EFE added.

ABC Color reported, “annoyed by publications about his wife and about his own administration, General Gonzaga Garcete allowed the military under his command to undertake illegal spying, without knowledge or consent of the public prosecutor. They were determined to find out the identities of ‘the traitors’ who leaked the information to our newspaper.”

According to ABC Color, the team that was in charge of this work managed to access two cell phone numbers of the reporter and got the complete list of all the numbers that the reporter called or those from which he received calls.

The newspaper added that for this espionage, they would have had to mobilize intelligence agents in the northern region of the country to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay. According to ABC Color, their journalistic team “could prove” that the intelligence team in the north “was bled” to the point of being seriously depleted and with little structure, at the same time that the region saw the kidnapping of a teenager at the hands of the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP for its initials in Spanish), an armed group with Marxist leanings.

Several authors, including President Horacio Cartes, commented on the allegations. The president called for an investigation to clarify the event “as soon as possible,” according to a press release.

“With great concern, I have seen the allegations with respect to the personal use of military intelligence equipment for spying on civilians. I assure all Paraguayans that this administration does not support, nor will it accept illegal surveillance methods,” the release said.

The president of the Congress of Paraguay also pointed out that, if proven, spying on a journalist would be a “very serious event” and demanded both the president and the prosecutor to act on the case.

"We are facing an extremely serious situation. It is serious to use equipment [meant for working against the EPP] to investigate a journalist or whoever. It would have been used for that and not to spy on journalists or anyone,” said Sen. Robert Acevedo, according to ABC Color.

Minister of the Interior, Francisco de Vargas, said that “without being suspicious, I believe that we should verify this information,” according to the site Última Hora. The site reported that the minister also said he hoped that news reports had basis and were not irresponsible.

A lieutenant colonel who had been mentioned in the newspaper’s investigation said that these accusations “are not true” and added that a legal action for defamation and calumnia could be presented.

“If this goes to the Judiciary, they will have to show how the data was accessed.  I am being advised and I intend to present an action for defamation and calumnia,” the lieutenant colonel said to a radio station, according to Última Hora.

He ensured that there were never personal changes in the intelligence team and that technology used by the military does not allow them to hear any kind of calls.

The Association of Paraguayan Journalists (SPP for its acronym in Spanish) also commented on the case which it described as a “serious attack” against freedom of expression,” according to a statement published on its website.

“It is a very serious event, an attack against freedom of expression and against the guarantees for free exercise of journalism enshrined in the National Constitution. At the same time, it provides a further indication of a terrorism of the State that takes us back to the darkest of military tyrannies,” said Santiago Ortiz, secretary general of the SPP. “We cannot tolerate such practices that in other countries have ended with murdered colleagues, in addition to persecution and harassment.”

SPP also mentioned a report published by a local organization earlier this year, which warned about the Paraguayan government’s potential use of the software Finfisher.

According to the organization, the country’s Government could lend itself to “practices that are dangerous and that violate fundamental rights.” The report alleged that the Government has the technology capable of “remotely turning off cell phones, to intercept video calls made through Skype and to recognize keyboard typing,” according to SPP.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.