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Journalists Say They Feel Constantly Watched After Pegasus Spyware Revelations

A woman checks the website of Israel-made Pegasus spyware at an office in the Cypriot capital, Nicosia, on July 21, 2021.

Human rights and press freedom groups have expressed outrage over revelations that 180 journalists around the world were targeted for surveillance by military-grade Israeli spyware.

The private Israeli company NSO Group sold its Pegasus surveillance software to governments, some of which used it to target journalists and human rights activists. The software was even used against government leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron.

Macron has called for an investigation, and Israel says it is appointing a task force to investigate. NSO says the spyware is intended to help catch criminals and terrorists.

However, an international investigation started by the Paris-based Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, known as the Pegasus Project, found that the spyware has been used extensively by a cluster of 10 countries to target journalists and activists, penetrating their cellphones and even taking over their phone’s cameras.

“You have Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Mexico, Morocco, all of those countries are well known to have some behavior against journalists, against human rights defenders. They are tracking them. In Mexico, we find a phone number of a journalist appearing in the list and two months later he was killed,” Laurent Richard of Forbidden Stories told VOA. “We also have proof that the fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi was surveilled by that software right after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.”

One of the journalists targeted in Rwanda worked for VOA. A journalist targeted by Azerbaijan, Sevinc Vaqifqizi of Meydan TV, told VOA her privacy has been destroyed.

“From now on, you know that wherever you are, someone is with you, watching you, seeing you, recording your conversations, determining your whereabouts,” Vaqifqizi said. “Wherever you go or do something, you are under someone's control, and they can see and record everything about you, whether you are sleeping, standing, going to the kitchen, or even going to the bathroom.”

Azerbaijani activist and blogger Bakhtiyar Hajiyev has been imprisoned and beaten in his home country on charges of evading military service. The Pegasus investigation confirmed that his phone number was on the list of targets. He told VOA on Wednesday he is constantly threatened.

“Well, I don’t remember any single day or week without threats. These threats appear in different forms, cyberattacks, blackmailing or smear campaigns,” Hajiyev said. “And also literally today, minutes ago before this interview, law enforcement agencies informed and warned me that if I don’t stop criticizing the Azerbaijani government, they will start a new smear campaign against me in order to hurt my reputation.”

In a statement Wednesday, the U.S. Agency for Global Media said it is outraged by reports that more than 180 journalists — including some from VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty — appear to have been targets of the sophisticated spyware.

“Targeting journalists’ private conversations in any way is unconscionable,” acting USAGM CEO Kelu Chao said. “This abuse must stop, and reporters’ security must be protected.”

Dilshad Aliyarli of VOA's Azeri service contributed to this report.