IFJ Calls on Stakeholders to Join Hands to Ban Journalists’ Surveillance

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Anthony Bellanger
IFJ Secretary General

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and all its affiliates have called on governments across the world and international bodies to join hands with journalists’ unions to develop strict regulations that ban surveillance of journalists and recognise the inviolability of journalists communications.

IFJ made the call in a statement issued to commemorate the 2022 edition of the World Press Freedom Day saying: “Growing reporting revealing the breadth and extent of the use of spyware to surveil journalists and governments all over the world reveals that surveillance of journalists is one of the main and most worrying threats to press freedom.”

The group noted that all over the world, from Asia Pacific to Latin America, passing by European and the Middle East, governments have reportedly used sophisticated spyware products designed to fight crime to target independent journalists.

It said the lack of regulations and control over the use of this kind of spyware which was originally designed to fight crime and terrorism, enables the malicious use of it against journalists, politicians, human rights advocates and civil society leaders. IFJ pointed out that in the case of journalists and media workers, this spyware has been widely used to spy on journalists’ working devices.

IFJ note that by just clicking on an apparently innocent link, a device is infected and allows attackers full access to passwords, accounts, calls, emails, and even encrypted communications. The spyware can also record video, audio, and read messages without users knowing, it said.

With full access to journalists’ key working tools, IFJ warned that governments can uncover sources, undermine research, intimidate media workers and in some cases, stop their reporting.

The group noted that in recent months, media organizations and international bodies reported multiple cases of espionage on media professionals and cited instances. It disclosed that in July 2021, the Forbidden Stories project revealed that 180 journalists’ smartphones were infected with Pegasus spyware all over the world. Many others, aside those of these 180 journalists were also infected.

Specifically, IFJ reported that in El Salvador, an investigation carried out by The Citizen Lab proved that at least 31 media professionals were spied by Israeli spyware Pegasus between June 2020 and November 2021. Twenty-two of them were working for El Faro digital newspaper, critical to El Salvador president Nayib Bukele.

The Citizen Lab also revealed that Greek journalist Thanasis Koukakis was allegedly spied on by a new surveillance software named Predator for at least three months, between July 12 and September 24, 2021, while another investigation also exposed alleged espionage on Catalan journalists in Spain. In Jordan, freelance journalist Suhair Jaradat’s smartphone was hacked with the Pegasus spyware between August 2019 and December 2021.

IFJ noted that these are just some of the confirmed cases adding that the real number of espionages may be more than a few.

In the face of the avalanche of new cases of spying on journalists and on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, the IFJ called on journalists to redouble efforts to safeguard their own data and devices and on media organizations to promote training on digital safety for journalists.

It asked governments to enshrine in domestic law the inviolability of journalists’ communications both abstractly and in the framing of specific laws and regulations such as those on domestic surveillance.

The group urged the international community to build a regulatory regime that allows the inspection and regulation of all organisations supplying products that have the capacity to undermine journalists’ fundamental rights and freedoms.

Younes Mjahed, IFJ President said: “Surveillance brings no security to journalists. Every day a new case of espionage on a journalist is discovered. The digital espionage of journalists is growing and both global and national actions are urgently needed to curb it. The next IFJ Congress in Oman will explore how surveillance can be tackled and we will work with our affiliates to ensure journalists are better equipped to protect themselves from malware attacks”.