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Pegasus Project gets journalism award

Investigation questions if governments do enough to stop use of spyware

Spyware attacks on journalists continue! A new investigation identifies seven additional Russian and Belarusian-speaking journalists and opposition activists living in exile in Europe who were targeted with the NSO Group’s  Pegasus spyware. Many of the targets publicly criticized the Russian government, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The investigation was made by Citizen Lab at Toronto university in collaboration with Access Now and independent digital security expert Nikolai Kvantiliani.

“As the targeting is happening in Europe, where these individuals have sought safety, it raises important questions regarding whether host states are meeting their obligations under international human rights law to prevent and respond to these human rights violations, and more generally, to address, and not compound, the practice of digital transnational repression”, the investigation concludes.

The European Parliament and EU governments shortly before the Christmas last year agreed on a new law that includes ban on use of spyware against journalists but with exception in strictly defined cases. 

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) welcomed the agreement stressing that the final version no longer referred to the possibility of spying on journalists on the basis of vague “national security” imperatives. 

Read Also:  Spyware and emergency visas in European press freedom report

The new investigation says that the targeted individuals, most of whom are currently living in exile, have faced intense threats from Russian and/or Belarusian state security services.”

According to the investigation, there are forensic artifacts that suggest (but do not prove) that at least five of the cases may be the result of targeting by a single NSO Group customer. The report does not mention the name of the customer.

Citizen Lab has earlier published a report about the hacking of exiled Russian journalist Galina Timchenko with Pegasus mercenary spyware. Timchenko is the CEO and publisher of Meduza, a widely-respected Russian independent media group operating in exile. 

“Critics of the Russian and Belarusian governments typically face retaliation in the form of surveillance, detention, threats, violence, death, travel bans, financial surveillance, hacking, censorship, and political repression. After Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the repression escalated”, the new investigation says.

It notes that, in light of growing repression, many individuals and groups that are perceived as enemies by the Russian and Belarusian governments have left to continue their work from abroad. Today, for example, many Russian and Belarusian independent media organizations operate from outside the country.

“While geographic distance and borders provide a degree of protection from daily repression in Russia and Belarus, both regimes have a well-documented history of engaging in transnational repression against diaspora communities.” 

“This repression has included violent attacks, threats, suspected poisonings, and surveillance.”

“Organizing in exile may in fact increase certain digital risks, as groups are forced to rely almost exclusively on third-party platforms and tools to communicate and disseminate information, creating complex challenges for maintaining privacy and security.” 

Read Also:  The Pegasus Project gets Daphne Caruana Galizia journalism prize


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