Armed with a pen: the dangers of being a journalist

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The brutal murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi made international headlines in 2018. Khashoggi, most recently a writer for The Washington Post, was outspokenly critical of the Saudi government and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. His refusal to be silenced led to his murder.

Khashoggi had worked as a journalist for the Saudi regime for thirty years. In this role, he was expected to serve as a tool for the regime, situating himself within their controlled attitude towards journalism. Indeed, he expressed support for many controversial facets of the Saudi government. His first confrontation against them came in 2011 when condemning the Saudi Arabian wealth fuelling counter-revolutions against the Arab Spring. Utilising Twitter, where Saudi voices could exercise most freedom, Khashoggi’s audience grew and grew, and his detailed knowledge of the ruling administration posed him as a serious threat to bin Salman. He was informed, impassioned and inaccessible, given his self-exile to the US in 2017. 

Khashoggi’s murder, as well as the international outcry which followed, sparked discussion of the perils of being an outspoken critic of an authoritarian regime. Journalists face heightened risk in many fields. More recently, Peter de Vries, a Dutch investigative journalist advising on a case involving a notorious Dutch-Moroccan criminal, was shot in the head on 6th July 2021 and died shortly after. The investigation into his assassination is still ongoing. Though a certain degree of threats, tails, or intimidation may be expected when investigating dangerous figures, it has recently been revealed that participating in such investigations may lead to an unprecedented extent of surveillance,  and potential for attack.

An attack is impossible to prevent and difficult to identify

Pegasus is a phone hacking software that can activate a phone’s camera and microphone, pinpoint location, and record calls and messages, converting a phone into a surveillance device without the user even realising that such software has been downloaded. A consortium of seventeen prominent media outlets known as the Pegasus Project exposed that journalists, activists, and dissidents are being targeted by governments using this software.

The developers of Pegasus, an Israeli company named NSO, sell this software to 40 unnamed countries across the world. Though they insist that the purpose of Pegasus is to investigate criminals and known terrorists, a data leak in July 2021 brought to light that tens of thousands of phone numbers selected to be investigated belong to people with no known connection to any criminal activity. Analysis into the data leak suggests that Pegasus is being abused by some NSO clients to spy on political rivals, pro-democracy activists, and journalists investigating corruption. As Pegasus manipulates yet unidentifiable weaknesses in phone software, an attack is impossible to prevent and difficult to identify. 

More than 180 journalists were listed in the leaked data, meaning they have been selected for surveillance by Pegasus. The list also included close associates of Khashoggi, as well as the prosecutor investigating his death. Cecilio Pineda Birto, a Mexican reporter killed in a carwash in 2017 hours after broadcasting about corruption within local police, was also on the list, selected for surveillance in the months before his murder. It is unknown whether his phone was successfully infected with Pegasus software; NSO has argued that even if so, his location may have been discovered through other methods.

It is impossible to understate the strength of the individuals who fight to describe the realities that they observe

In America, although NSO technology cannot affect phones with the +1 country code, the freedom of the press can at times be uncertain. Despite the country’s historical emphasis on freedom of speech, Donald Trump’s presidency encouraged hostility towards the press. The Trump administration was recently revealed to have seized the phone and email records of several journalists in 2017, who were working on reports concerning the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia. By attempting to identify sources disclosing classified information, such invasive investigations jeopardise their safety and anonymity, as well as the reporter-source relationship.

However, the risk facing American journalists pales in comparison to those elsewhere; Mexico was the deadliest country for journalists in 2020, surpassing the death count for journalists in warzones. Reporters such as Pineda, who investigate the collusion between state officials and organised crime groups, render themselves vulnerable to attacks in a country where protection for journalists under threat is limited.

It is impossible to understate the strength of the individuals who fight to describe the realities that they observe, despite potentially fearsome consequences. Journalism is essential for citizens to be able to think for themselves and form their own opinions; if the narrative is shaped through silencing certain facts, by silencing certain people, what and who can we trust? 

Image: Hasan Jamali via ABC News

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