Which countries are surveilling their journalists and with what tools?

The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented the answers.

Waldemar Brandt / Unsplash

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The Committee to Protect Journalists, published a map yesterday, comprehensively illustrating publicly documented efforts by state actors to surveil journalists, commentators, and in some cases, their family and associates. The map was accompanied by a press release calling on world leaders to “regulate spyware” and “halt surveillance of journalists.” The report also documents the surveillance tools known to have been used in these operations and the companies that develop them.

One such case in of Moroccan journalist Omar Radi, who in June 2020 Amnesty International reported has been targeted by his own government with a tool known as Pegasus. Pegasus, spyware for mobile phones developed by Israeli company NSO Group, has been used by the Moroccan government on both journalists and activists, according to Amnesty International. According to the CPJ report, Pegasus has also been used by the Mexican and Saudi governments, to spy on journalists, including Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post reporter who was murdered by Saudi operatives in 2018.

Reporting on the use of Pegasus by the Mexican government, the New York TImes says that the tool “infiltrates smartphones to monitor every detail of a person’s cellular life — calls, texts, email, contacts and calendars. It can even use the microphone and camera on phones for surveillance, turning a target’s smartphone into a personal bug.” It is typically delivered via a text message containing a link which downloads the software. Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post, was targeted with such a message from the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in early 2020.

This past December, the Canadian privacy and security research lab known as Citizen Lab published a report documenting that at least 36 Al Jazeera journalists and executives had been targeted by Pegasus in the summer of 2020 alone, though only one is named in the report, Tamer Almisshal. Rania Dridi of London-based Al-Araby TV was also targeted and mentioned in Citizen Lab’s report.

CPJ notes in their report that surveillance is often tailed by further free press and human rights violations. The most clear and obvious one being the aforementioned murder of Khashoggi. Omar Raddi and fellow Moroccon journalist Maati Monjib were both jailed in the summer of 2020. Griselda Triana, widow of murdered Mexican journalist Javier Valdez, was targeted with Pegasus shortly after her husband was killed.

3 other tools are listed in CPJ’s report with varying capabilities. Remote Control System by Hacking Team, since acquired by Milan-based Memento Labs, is a tool that allows the controller to observe activity happening on a PC. FinSpy, by Munich-based company FinFisher, is also PC spyware. And lastly PC Surveillance System built by Israeli company Elbit Systems. The offending governments listed in the report are those of Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

In their materials being distributed to governments, CPJ is calling on officials to “bar the use of spyware to surveil journalists and media outlets” as well as regulate its export or transfer. They also call for sanctions against “actors who have spied or facilitated spying on journalists through the sale or use of spyware.” Private companies are being prompted to “prohibit clients from spying on journalists in explicit terms in contracts and licenses” and “revoke access to spyware when abuse is detected.”

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