MEXICO CITY (AP) — President Enrique Pena Nieto said Thursday he wants a rapid investigation into reports of high-tech spying against journalists and human rights defenders in Mexico, while he dismissed allegations that his government was responsible.
In his first public comments since the allegations broke this week, Pena Nieto said it is easy to blame the government for spying, but it's not true. Yet, he then said the alleged victims cannot show proof they were harmed.
Speaking at the inauguration of an industrial park in the western state of Jalisco, Pena Nieto said he rejects any invasion into the private lives of citizens, but concluded his remarks by seeming to call for a legal response against those making "false" allegations.
The University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, an internet watchdog group, said this week that spyware called Pegasus produced by Israel's NSO Group was used to target the cellphones of people who were investigating or critical of Mexico's government. It said there was no conclusive proof of government involvement, but noted that the software was sold only to governments and that the detected targets were all investigating or critical of the government.
A copy of the remarks by Pena Nieto, who suffers from historically low approval ratings, were distributed Thursday by the president's office to media outlets and left some of the accusers genuinely confounded.
Carlos Loret de Mola, who hosts a news program on the Televisa network and was one of those targeted by the software, slapped his forehead in disbelief in a video that he posted to his Facebook page.
"The Mexican government has put itself in aggressive mode," Loret de Mola said in response to Pena Nieto's comments. "He says to the (Attorney General's Office), 'Investigate me fast, clear me of responsibility.'"
The president also said, "I hope that within the law something can be done about those who lodged false allegations."
John Scott Railton of Citizen Lab said Monday during a presentation of his research that the software turns a cellphone into a spy with the ability to remotely activate its microphone and camera as well as access everything that is stored on it.
Citizen Lab said it had "no conclusive evidence attributing these messages to specific government agencies in Mexico. However, circumstantial evidence suggests that one or more ... of NSO's government customers in Mexico are the likely operators."
The Centro Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez, a prominent human rights group that has investigated a number of high-profile human rights cases and said its staff members were targeted, was incredulous at the president's remarks.
In a statement late Thursday, it called for an independent investigation by experts. It said that by dismissing and diminishing the significance of the spying and threatening those who reported it, "President Pena Nieto has shown that he will not be capable of investigating himself."