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Press Freedom In The Age Of Digital Surveillance

Acting on the demands of several journalists, activists and NGOs, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called for an immediate moratorium on the development, export, sale and use of spyware until robust guarantees are implemented to safeguard journalists.

Pegasus is a spyware that was developed by an Israeli cyber weapons company named NSO Group.
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Digital surveillance of journalists is on the rise. Time and again, several reports and investigations have revealed the breadth and extent to which journalists are spied on. In a recent report, a US media watchdog recently warned that ‘sophisticated spyware poses an existential threat’ to investigative journalists forcing them to remain silent due to fear of danger, creating an identity crisis.

Acting on the demands of several journalists, activists and NGOs, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called for an immediate moratorium on the development, export, sale and use of spyware until robust guarantees are implemented to safeguard journalists, according to VOA News.

On the other hand, a study by the European Parliament concerning the safety of journalists and media freedom globally, published on October 22,  states “impunity remains unacceptably high, with most cases of killings remaining unresolved. Imprisonments are on the rise, while online spaces are becoming increasingly hostile and replete with gender-based hate speech.”

The study cited data collected by the Committee to Protect Journalists indicating that a majority of killings between 2012 and 2021 occurred in 11 countries.

With an increase in alleged incidents of digital spying, we look at a few incidents of journalists coming under snoops.

Last year, the Pegasus snooping scandal revealed how over 300 verified Indian mobile phone numbers were on the list of potential targets for alleged surveillance using Israeli firm NSO's spyware Pegasus.

The Israeli company behind the software, NSO group, initially insisted that the Pegasus software ‘is only intended for use against criminals and terrorists.’

Almost 50,000 phones were affected by the malware, which infects iPhones and Android devices to enable operators of the tool to extract messages, photos and emails, record calls and secretly activate microphones, and it was revealed that the spying was targetted journalists, lawyers, human rights activists and so on.

The software that was developed to be used by governments across the world to fight terrorism, was increasingly used by authorities to target journalists for reasons not linked to national security. Although the Israeli company alleged innocence, there has been little clarity on how long the snoop was being carried out.

In late October, the Supreme Court of India observed that freedom of the press is an important pillar of India and the court's task in the Pegasus matter assumes great significance with regard to the importance of protection of journalistic sources and the potential chilling effect that snooping techniques may have.

The apex court, which appointed a three-member expert panel to probe into the alleged use of Pegasus for surveillance of certain people in India, highlighted the aspect pertaining to the freedom of the press and said it is compelled to take up the cause in the matter to determine truth and get to the bottom of the allegations made.

But long before the Pegasus Project, the use of the spyware has been documented in Mexico – the first country to purchase the technology. Former President Pena Nieto misused the spyware to track whereabouts of targetted activists. However, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, in 2018, declared the use of spyware to be a thing of the past, saying that the Mexican authorities ‘no longer have any relations’ with Pegasus. 

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Similar to Peagusus, early this year, it emerged that Greece’s secret service, the EYP, was secretly surveilling opposition party leader Nikos Androulakis’s phone along with that of three journalists. However, as the investigation proceeded, it was reported that Greek authorities did not make much effort to investigate the use of spyware. Further, the Greek government has denied using the illegal Predator spyware, which allows the monitoring of calls, messages, photos or video on the phone.

In another recent incident, a Turkish journalist was allegedly spied on by the government. Levent Kenez, the Swedish-based editor of Nordic Monitor, claimed he was spied on by Turkey’s intelligence agency, which leaked his private information to the media.

The pro-government daily Sabah, called Kenez “the spokesperson of the betrayal,” and wrote that he is been hiding in Sweden with his family and published the details of his residence.

The government had allegedly broken several Turkish laws by using malware software daily on Kenez to spy on his daily life.

Last year, the Swedish Supreme Court rejected a request from Turkey for the extradition of Kenez. The apex court ruled that Turkey’s allegations against Kenez did not contain the element of a crime under Swedish law. The high court also stated that if Kenez returned to Turkey, he would face the risk of persecution.

While these might be a few instances of digital spying, crimes against journalists are daily occurrences that have long needed a comprehensive response.

Between 2006 and 2020, over 1,200 journalists have been killed for reporting the news and bringing information to the public. In nine out of ten cases the killers go unpunished, according to the UNESCO observatory of killed journalists.

“Impunity leads to more killings and is often a symptom of worsening conflict and the breakdown of law and judicial systems,” it states.

Ahead of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists on November 2, UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres last week called on the governments and the international community to take the necessary steps to protect journalists. While there lack any comprehensive steps to protect the freedom of the press.

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