Global targeting of journalists with state spyware revealed by international investigation
The targeting of nearly 200 journalists, including the editor of the Financial Times, with a spyware monitoring tool has been condemned as “the 21st century equivalent of breaking printing presses and taking assault on television channels ”.
The Guardian and a consortium of media organizations have revealed that at least 180 journalists, including FT’s Roula Khalaf (pictured), have been selected as potential targets for Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group on orders from clients, including governments in the whole world.
The FT and Khalaf, who apparently came under UAE surveillance in 2018 when she was deputy editor, responded: “Press freedoms are vital and any illegal state interference or surveillance on journalists is unacceptable.
Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia are other governments that have reportedly selected journalists as potential targets for surveillance.
Reporters Without Borders now hopes to coordinate legal action on behalf of the journalists and media concerned. Secretary General Christophe Deloire declared: “We will do everything so that ONS is being punished for the crimes he committed and the tragedies he made possible.
“The judicial systems of democratic countries must take up this extremely serious matter, establish the facts and punish those responsible. “
The revelations came from the Pegasus Project, organized by the Forbidden Stories consortium with support from Amnesty International. Some 80 journalists were involved in the investigation of media partners including The Guardian in the United Kingdom, The Washington Post and PBS Frontline in the United States, European news titles including Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit, Radio France , Knack, Le Soir and Direkt36.
Aristegui Noticias and Proceso in Mexico, The Wire in India, the Arabic-speaking platform Daraj and Haaretz / TheMarker in Hebrew, as well as the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project were also involved.
Journalists analyzed a leaked list of cell phone numbers that had been selected for possible surveillance. Pegasus spyware, when installed on a phone, can give an external operator full access to their data and microphone.
Among the journalists on the list were figures from the Wall Street Journal, CNN, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, France 24, Radio Free Europe, Mediapart, El País, Associated Press, du Monde, Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse, Economist, Reuters and Voice of America.
Tim Dawson, chairman of the International Federation of Journalists Surveillance Expert Group, said: “The Pegasus software is being used as an algorithm to undermine democracy.
“Confidential contacts are the basis of all the best journalism – one that exposes waste, incompetence and corruption. The confidentiality of journalists’ communications, whether by e-mail, courier or telephone, must be sacrosanct.
“Allowing tyrants, despots and enemies of freedom to access tools like Pegasus is the 21st century equivalent of breaking printing presses and storming television stations. “
IFJ General Secretary Anthony Bellanger praised the work of journalists at the Pegasus Project, but said he was concerned it shows that access to the most private information by rogue actors is inevitable.
“The duty of journalists to protect their sources is the foundation of journalism on which free societies depend,” he said. That such a leak is possible, however, highlights the dangers inherent in such powerful software.
“If media organizations can get such a substantial and detailed cache of information, then clearly those with less honorable intentions can too.” Without strong regulation, dishonest actors’ access to our most intimate information is inevitable. “
The IFJ, taken over by the UK’s National Union of Journalists, highlighted three key takeaways for journalists and governments from the Pegasus leak.
He said journalists must redouble their efforts to protect their data, with measures that could include the use of multiple phones, including “burners,” while governments must enshrine the inviolability of journalistic communications with a legislation similar to national surveillance laws.
The IFJ has also called for a regulatory regime to be created for the international community to allow the inspection and regulation of any organization performing work that may infringe these laws and freedoms.
“This should concern everyone”
At the New York Times, reporters allegedly affected were Azam Ahmed, a former Mexico City bureau chief who reported on corruption, violence and surveillance in Latin America, including on NSO, and the bureau chief. of Beirut Ben Hubbard who investigated rights violations and corruption. in Saudi Arabia and has previously written about a hack attempt on his phone.
Michael Slackman, NYT associate editor for international news, said, “Azam Ahmed and Ben Hubbard are talented journalists who have done an important job uncovering information that governments didn’t want their citizens to know. Surveillance of journalists is designed to intimidate not only these journalists, but also their sources, which should be of concern to everyone. “
In France, where France 24, Mediapart, Le Monde and Agence France-Presse would all be concerned, a government spokesperson called the information “extremely shocking”.
“We are extremely attached to the freedom of the press, so it is very serious if there has been manipulation aimed at undermining the freedom of journalists, their freedom to investigate, to inform,” said Gabriel Attal according to France 24.
Reuters spokesman Dave Moran said: “Journalists should be allowed to report news in the public interest without fear of harassment or harm, wherever they are. We are aware of the report and are looking into the matter. “
Associated Press Director of Media Relations Lauren Easton said: “We are deeply disturbed to learn that two reporters from AP, as well as reporters from many news agencies, were among those who were able to be targeted by Pegasus spyware.
“We have taken steps to ensure the safety of our journalists’ devices and are investigating. “
NSO: “Wrong assumptions”
NSO claimed the report was “full of flawed assumptions and unsubstantiated theories.”
In particular, he has denied that his technology is used to eavesdrop, monitor, track or collect information on murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi or any of his family members.
“We would like to stress that NSO sells its technologies only to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of controlled governments for the sole purpose of saving lives by preventing crime and terrorist acts,” he said.