World Press Freedom Day: IFJ calls for global solutions to combat journalists surveillance

Cases of spying on journalists and media workers using sophisticated spyware programs have multiplied in recent years all over the world. To mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and all its affiliates urge governments across the world and international bodies to work together with journalists’ unions to develop strict regulations that ban surveillance of journalists and recognise the inviolability of journalists' communications.

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.

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. 

The lack of regulations and control over the use of this kind of spyware, originally designed to fight crime and terrorism, enables a malicious use of it against journalists, politicians, human rights advocates and civil society leaders. In the case of journalists and media workers, this spyware has been widely used to spy on journalists’ working devices.

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. It can also record video, audio, and read messages without users knowing.

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

Spying on journalists: a popular practice among governments all over the world

In recent months, media organizations and international bodies have reported multiple cases of espionage on media professionals. In July 2021, the Forbidden Stories project revealed that 180 journalists’ smartphones were infected with Pegasus spyware all over the world. But they have not been the only ones.

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. Many of the spied journalists (22) were working for El Faro digital newspaper, critical to El Salvador president Nayib Bukele.

The same organization revealed that Greek journalist Thanasis Koukakis was allegedly spied on by a new surveillance software named Predator for at least three months, between 12 July and 24 September 2021, while another investigation has recently 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.

These are just some of the confirmed cases; 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 International Press Freedom Day, the IFJ calls on:

Journalists to redouble efforts to safeguard their own data and devices and on media organizations to promote training on digital safety for journalists.

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 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.

IFJ President Younes Mjahedsaid: “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”.

IFJ affiliates will organise a series of events around 3 May to remind people of the fundamentals of a free press and the core values of journalism.

For more information, please contact IFJ on +32 2 235 22 16

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 146 countries

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