Omar Radi wasn’t surprised to find he was the target of apparent surveillance by Moroccan authorities. The freelance investigative journalist has been threatened and arrested for his coverage of the government, and was most recently summoned by police on June 24.
“The situation of journalists in Morocco is very tough,” Radi told VOA earlier this week. “You can face charges, you can face trial and also some kind of invisible threats such as pushing you into poverty by just calling all the editors and saying ‘don't hire this one.’”
The extent of those threats was revealed by Amnesty International, which detailed in a June 22 report how a spyware tool called Pegasus was used to target Radi on at least three occasions between January 2019 and January 2020.
In the same time period, Radi, who covers corruption and human rights, was prosecuted for his criticism of the trial of a group of activists. A court in March handed him a four-month suspended sentence.
Two days after the Amnesty report was published, police summoned Radi for questioning on suspicion of “obtaining funds from foreign sources related to intelligence groups.” In a statement, the journalist said the summons was “clearly linked” to the Amnesty International report.
Pegasus—the spyware tool used to track Radi—was developed by the Israeli firm NSO Group. On its website, the company says its products are used “exclusively” by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Pegasus can infect a phone in several ways including via a text message or email with a malicious link. Once a phone is infected, Pegasus can gain access to contacts and text messages, as well as the microphone and camera, according to Citizen Lab — a University of Toronto center focused on technology, human rights, and global security.
NSO Group has been criticized by international bodies and rights groups who say its products endanger journalists and activists.
“Ultimately, it puts people at risk because they aren't able to necessarily even know that they're being spied on,” Peter Micek, general counsel for global digital rights organization Access Now, told VOA.
NSO Group shared a statement with VOA that said it was reviewing the information in the Amnesty International report and takes any claim of misuse seriously.
The company said it “has undertaken a Human Rights Compliance Policy to comply with the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” and it shared a June 1 letter to United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye on its plans to mitigate the risk that its products are used to interfere with or infringe on rights to privacy and freedom of expression.
The statement added that NSO Group seeks to be transparent in response to allegations of misuse but does not disclose the identifies of customers “because we develop and license to States and State agencies technologies to assist in combatting terrorism, serious crimes, and threats to national security.”
Morocco’s Washington embassy did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.
Micek, from Access Now, said an “opaque” market meant that a lot of the interactions between surveillance companies and governments are unknown to human rights organizations.
“What we're left to do is kind of put to pick up the pieces and put together the puzzle to show how this sector is working in cahoots with abusive governments in violation of our human rights,” Micek said.
The use of Pegasus was flagged in 2018 by Citizen Lab, which identified 45 countries where the tool appeared to have been deployed, including against human rights defenders and journalists.
Six of those countries, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, have been known to violate the human rights of its citizens, said Bill Marczak, a senior research fellow at Citizen Lab who contributed to its reports on Pegasus.
In response to earlier criticism, the NSO Group released a human rights policy on Sept. 10. The policy stated it would require customers to use the products for the sole purpose of limiting “serious crimes” such as terrorism.
The Amnesty report said that its forensic analysis of Radi’s phone showed that just a few days later, the journalist was surveilled for a third time.
“It's always a starting point to get companies to commit to respect human rights and promote human rights,” Micek said. “But unfortunately often that's not much more than words on paper.”
Citizen Lab’s Marczak said that the company could be considered more legitimate if a third party organization was conducting oversight into the human rights policy.
“Everyone is sort of really waiting to see evidence that the human rights policy is effective and is working right now,” Marczak said. “The company can say they’re implementing a human rights policy, but if they're the ones that are in charge of enforcing and implementing, then that can be an issue.”
Technologies like Pegasus have dangerous implications on how journalists can work, especially in countries with a hostile environment for the media.
Morocco, where authorities regularly jail and harass journalists, ranks 133 out of 180 countries, where 1 is the most free, according to the Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
For Radi, the apparent government interference has caused him to lose sources he previously relied on. He said most of his reporting now is done in person because contacts are hesitant to interact with him over the phone.
“It takes more time to be more and more secure. It slows up your work,” Radi said. “You can’t be secure 100 percent.”
These dangers are to be expected for journalists who have been surveilled, Micek said. He added that the threat of surveillance “poisons the well of trust in communities.”
“People do suffer knock on effects when the surveillance leads to persecution, exile, they're detained unlawfully, they're beaten up,” Micek said. “All of these stem from unlawful surveillance.”