Argentina's President Mauricio Macri talks to journalists after casting his vote during primary elections in Buenos Aires,…
FILE - Then-President Mauricio Macri talks to journalists after casting his vote during primary elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Aug. 11, 2019.

The alleged surveillance of over 400 journalists by Argentina’s former government has been condemned by rights groups as a threat to press freedom and democracy.

Files made public by the president’s office Sunday appear to show that during former President Mauricio Macri’s term, Argentina’s Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI) collected data on hundreds of local and international journalists, many of whom covered international summits held in Argentina.

“It is extremely serious and worrying that the state is watching or spying on journalists,” Paula Cejas, director of the Latin America office for the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), told VOA via email. “This is a clear attack on freedom of expression and press, and a violation of people's privacy.”

The files were shared with a court last week, along with a criminal complaint that accused the former head of the intelligence agency of domestic espionage without a judicial order,The Associated Press reported.

FILE - Argentine President Mauricio Macri speaks during a presidential candidates debate, in Santa Fe, Oct. 13, 2019.

The complaint called for an investigation of Macri, former AFI director Gustavo Arribas, his deputy Silvina Majdalani and other agents, according to the IFJ and news reports.

Macri’s chief of staff, Gustavo Gómez Repeto, did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.

A former spokesperson for Macri told the AP he no longer worked for the former president, and a spokesperson for the party of former Security Minister Patricia Bullrich said she was not on duty and hung up, the AP reported.

The complaint alleges that the AFI compiled profiles of businesspeople and academics, with over 400 journalists included, some of whom worked for Reuters and AP.

Some of the profiles included "political preferences, social media posts, sympathy for feminist groups, or political and/or cultural content among others,” according to the complaint.

Intelligence audit

The alleged surveillance came to light when President Alberto Fernández, who ousted Macri in elections in October, asked new intelligence chief Cristina Camaño to audit the intelligence agency.

The prosecutor’s office said that Camaño found the files on hard drives in a safe in an intelligence agency office. The files included three dossiers: “2017,” “G20” and “Miscellaneous.”

Argentina hosted the World Trade Organization’s annual summit in 2017 and the Group of 20 summit in 2018.

Cejas, of the IFJ, told VOA that “everything indicates” the surveillance related to journalists who were accredited for the summits.

Natalie Southwick, from the press freedom group the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said it was unclear what the information was used for, and who within the government was involved.

There are “more questions than answers,” she told VOA.

“[Journalists] are trying to do their job, which is reporting on issues of public interest — in this case, a global event,” Southwick said. She added the idea that a journalist may be singled out for activities or movements “is potentially a really powerful tool of intimidation.”

The Forum for Argentine Journalism (FOPEA), an organization that protects and promotes journalism in Argentina, said in a statement that it will request reports from the agencies involved.

The alleged actions were “intolerable in a democracy and affect the constitutional safeguard of journalistic activity,” according to a translation of the organization’s June 6 statement.

Targeting journalists in Argentina is not new, Cejas said. During the country’s dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, over 220 journalists and media workers disappeared, she said. This “does not diminish” the relevance of the surveillance, she added.

Capabilities may still exist

Southwick said that the country’s history of surveilling journalists means the government may have similar capabilities today, even decades after the dictatorship.

“When you have this kind of surveillance apparatus and infrastructure that was created under previous governments, unless it's actively dismantled, you still kind of have that capability,” Southwick said.

Several Latin American countries are believed to have purchased or shown interest in spyware, according to a 2016 report by Chilean digital rights group Derechos Digitales.

“In most countries, it’s not unreasonable to assume that [journalists’] movements or their social media posts or some of their activities are being watched," Southwick said.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press.