Spyware Threatens Freedom of the Press Confidentiality Imperative

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The author is Senior Africa Researcher with the Committee to Protect Journalists*.

May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. This is part of a series of IPS articles and opinion editorials focusing on media freedom around the world.

Journalists in the performance of their duties. Credit: Left – UNESCO/©Thomas Hawk; Right – UN Photo/Evan Schneider

NEW YORK, 28 Apr 2021 (IPS) – The repeated use of spyware to target journalists and their families poses an existential threat to the privacy necessary for press freedom to flourish. Without the ability to communicate privately with sources, conduct research and compile information, journalists are hampered in their ability to keep the public informed and hold the powerful to account.

“The spyware attack revealed to me that no matter where I am and no matter what my nationality, if the Moroccan government wants to gather surveillance, they will… It prevents you from doing your job because you don’t want to put people [you speak to] in danger,” said Samia Errazzouki, a member of the Moroccan newspaper’s editorial board. Mamfakinch news site with US nationality. Errazzouki was based in the United States when she and 14 others Mamfakinch staff were targeted by spyware in 2012.

In March, the Committee to Protect Journalists mapped dozens of incidents in which members of the media were the targets of sophisticated and covert surveillance on nearly every continent. The compiled reports detail how spyware products sold by companies based in Israel and Europe have allegedly been used by governments to reach across borders and oceans into the devices of journalists and their associates to monitor their lives at home. without their knowledge.

“It’s not just fear or anxiety,” said Errazzouki, who now contemplates the possibility of being unknowingly recorded by her devices’ cameras and microphones. “It’s real, the way it changes your daily habits. Do not change clothes in front of your computer. Put your phone in a drawer to have a private conversation.…[There’s] some degree of paranoia.

Evidence of spyware use against the press uncovered by investigators including the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, Amnesty International and Reuters paints a chilling threat to the privacy journalists need to work freely .

The rampant use of technology to access and monitor journalists’ devices fosters fear and self-censorship, often accompanied by physical intimidation or arrests.

In 2020, Moroccan journalists Omar Radi and Maati Monjib were arrested after being targeted by spyware. Monjib was granted provisionally Release on March 23 after a 19-day hunger strike, but Radi remains behind bars. Another journalist in India, Anand Teltumbde, was also jailed last year over similar spyware targeting.

How efforts to hack the phones of these journalists may have contributed to their arrest remains unclear, but their experiences illustrate the familiar, tandem nature of digital and physical threats.

In Nigeria, for example, police have used data from call recordings to lure and arrest journalists and in Ghana journalists fear that digital forensics tools are being deployed to access information about seized devices. They are right after the The Washington Post reported that Myanmar police used the same technology to search the phones of two imprisoned Reuters journalists; and that the Nigerian military requested a “forensic search” of sources on editors’ phones and computers.

Without strong privacy advocacy from governments, business leaders and citizens, journalists’ phones will continue to be converted from useful tools into serious vulnerabilities.

* An abridged version of this report also appeared in the April 2021 edition of the Washington Post Press Freedom Partnership newsletter.

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