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Press FreedomGlobal issues

Spyware increasing threat to journalists globally

One Free Press Coalition
October 1, 2021

The Pegasus project by Forbidden Stories has proven the elaborate use of spyware by governments against journalists. The One Free Press Coalition highlights the threat this poses to journalists and their sources.

Türkei Schatten Polizei
Image: Getty Images/AFP/O. Kose

Recently, investigations called the Pegasus project revealed the breadth and extent of the use of spyware to surveil journalists and governments weaponizing technology around the globe. In its October iteration of the "10 Most Urgent" list, the One Free Press Coalition focuses on cases of journalists who have been victims of surveillance or targeted by spyware, posing a threat to press freedom.
While surveillance of journalists is not a new phenomenon, the lengths to which some actors will go to silence the press, and the rapid advancement of technology has exacerbated the problem. Around the world, governments have used sophisticated spyware products designed to fight crime to target the press. Journalists say spyware has the potential to expose their sources, their movements, and other private information that could be used to censor or obstruct them or imperil them or their sources. The Committee to Protect Journalists has also found that these attacks often go hand in hand with other press freedom violations and hinder journalists' ability to cover stories on politics and corruption.

1. Omar Radi (Morocco)
Since 2018, Moroccan authorities have filed sex crimes charges against multiple independent journalists in the country in an effort to target them for their reporting. Investigative journalist Omar Radi is one of 180 journalists identified by nonprofit Forbidden Stories as targeted by surveillance spyware. This past July, he was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of sexual assault and undermining state security through espionage and illegally receiving foreign funding.  

Moroccan journalist Omar Radi talking to press after his hearing
Omar Radi was handed a six year prison term this July by Moroccan authoritiesImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Bounhar

2. Khadija Ismayilova (Azerbaijan)
A prominent investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova is known for her exposés of high-level government corruption and alleged ties between President Ilham Aliyev’s family and businesses. She was sentenced to prison in 2014 and served 538 days before her release. In a forensic analysis of her phone, Amnesty International detected multiple traces of activity linked to Pegasus spyware, dating from 2019 to 2021.
3. Sevinj Vagifgizi (Azerbaijan)
Sevinj Vagifgizi, a correspondent for the Berlin-based, Azerbaijan-focused independent media outlet Meydan TV, was targeted by Pegasus spyware from 2019 to 2021. She has been previously in Azerbaijani authorities’ crosshairs and was banned from leaving the country from 2015 to 2019. In 2019, she faced libel charges after she reported on people voting with government-issued pre-filled ballots.
4. Szabolcs Panyi (Hungary)
Reports find that, in 2019, Pegasus spyware by President Viktor Orbán’s administration targeted Szabolcs Panyi among five Hungarian journalists, as conditions for independent journalism become increasingly grim in the country. Panyi is a journalist at Direkt36.hu, known for reporting on issues like government corruption.
5. Ricardo Calderón (Colombia)
Throughout 2019 and 2020, Ricardo Calderón, then director of the investigative team at newsmagazine Semana, was the target of threats, harassment and surveillance related to reporting on the Colombian military, including efforts to monitor journalists. This year the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ruled that Calderón faced “grave and imminent” danger from threats and surveillance by the Colombian military and other sources.
6. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (India)
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a journalist and author, has faced protracted criminal and civil defamation suits, and was recently threatened with arrest. Amnesty International detected forensic indications connected to Pegasus spyware from early 2018 on his phone, when he wrote about political parties using social media for political campaigning, and investigated a wealthy Indian business family's foreign assets.
7. Jamal Khashoggi (Saudi Arabia)
Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto team studying media, security and human rights, found that Pegasus spyware had infected the phone of Saudi Arabian dissident Omar Abdulaziz, who was in close contact with Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi before his murder by Saudi operatives on October 2, 2018. Research has found that the family and colleagues of journalists are often targets of surveillance.

Mobile phone seen in front of the NSO Group head quarter in Israel.
Journalists, activists and politicians were among 50,000 individuals spied on with the Pegasus software, an investigation by Forbidden Stories found in JulyImage: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Iamges
Police woman standing in front of a drawing of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi
Journalists and activists are still campaigning against the impunity in the case of Khashoggi's murderImage: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/L. Pitarakis

8. Ismael Bojórquez and Andrés Villarreal (Mexico)
After Javier Valdez Cárdenas, founder of Mexican outlet Río Doce was murdered in 2017, Río Doce’s director and his colleague received infection attempts to their phones with Pegasus spyware, with some of the attempts claiming to have information about Valdez’s death. 
9. Carmen Aristegui (Mexico)
Aristegui Noticias, the outlet run by one of Mexico’s most widely known reporters, has exposed numerous corruption scandals. According to Citizen Lab, Carmen Aristegui has been heavily targeted, alongside her son (a minor) with NSO spyware links, between 2015-2016.
10. Ahmed Mansoor (UAE)
Researchers report that prominent political blogger Ahmed Mansoor has been targeted by hackers multiple times, starting in 2011, when CPJ documented threats and legal action in connection with his blog.
*The One Free Press Coalition uses the collective audiences of member organizations like DW, Washington Post, Reuters and AP among others to stand up for journalists under attack for pursuing their work worldwide. The Coalition conceives and shares a list each month, highlighting journalists who are incarcerated, under threat or facing injustice.