Miami, August 15, 2019—The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed concern today over reports that Chile’s army allegedly ordered a surveillance operation against the investigative journalist Mauricio Weibel Barahona in 2016, when he was researching claims of misconduct in the armed forces.
On August 10, the news website La Tercera reported that the army intelligence directorate allegedly carried out “Operation W” focused on Weibel. The report, which cited unnamed intelligence sources, said that Weibel was followed and his phones were wiretapped. At the time, Weibel was working for the publication The Clinic and the Chilean public television outlet TVN, and researching Treason of the Homeland (Traición a la Patria), a book on alleged embezzlement in the army. La Tercera reported that in 2017 authorities also tapped the phones of active and retired members of the military suspected of leaking documents to the press about irregularities in the army.
At a press briefing on August 12, Chilean Minister of Defense Alberto Espina said that based on what he had been told, the operations were “carried out within the legal framework,” according to press reports. Espina added that he has requested an investigation from the military prosecutor’s office into how classified information on these matters was leaked.
In response to CPJ's request for comment, the army on August 16 sent an email referring to its statement that said intelligence and counterintelligence activities were compliant with the law and authorized by the ministers of the appeals court of Santiago.
CPJ emailed the Chilean judiciary for comment, but did not immediately receive a response.
"There is no valid justification for the military to spy on Mauricio Weibel Barahona or any journalist," said CPJ South and Central America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. "Instead of looking for legal justifications, Chilean authorities should investigate this apparent abuse of power. In a democracy it is vital that journalists can investigate allegations of corruption and misconduct without becoming targets."
Espina and Army Director of Intelligence Guillermo Paiva were summoned to a congressional commission to discuss the allegations in the report. They told the commission that a minister from the Court of Appeals had authorized the phone tapping, according to local news reports. Referring to Operation W, Paiva said that “phone tapping is legal, I cannot say if on journalists or not, but nobody in Chile is not subject to the laws … it is a Law of the Republic to which we are all subjected.”
In a phone call with CPJ yesterday, Weibel said that the report confirmed suspicions he had at the time that he was being monitored. He said that suspicious incidents took place including a burglary in the offices of The Clinic in June of this year, during which only computers were stolen, and that in 2016, he would see the same individuals in different places. He added that the government’s apparent support for the operation came as a surprise. “This is a case of a democratic government supporting espionage by the military on a civilian, on a journalist,” he said.
Weibel said that with the support of the Union of Journalists of Chile, he is requesting meetings with several authorities and institutions, including the president of the Supreme Court, the prosecutor general, members of Congress and the National Institute on Human Rights, as he considers his legal options.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This alert has been updated to include details of a statement the Chilean army provided to CPJ on August 16.]