UN human rights chief warns journalists are being watched by spyware even in ‘safe spaces’

Journalists face serious threats even in so-called “safe spaces” where security is increasingly at risk with the growing use of surveillance tools such as Pegasus or Candiru spyware, the head of the bureau of United Nations Human Rights.

Michelle Bachelet spoke at a World Press Freedom Day event organized by the city of Geneva, Switzerland.

In attendance were journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia, who jointly won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for their work, the first journalists to receive the award since 1935.

“The growing use of surveillance tools, such as Pegasus or Candiru spyware, deeply intrudes into people’s devices and lives,” Bachelet said, describing them as “an affront to the right to privacy and an obstruction to freedom of expression.” expression”.

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The official paid tribute to those who have no choice “but to work in the midst of harassment, intimidation, surveillance and increasing risk to their lives and livelihoods.”

“They do it for the good of all of us, so that we have access to free, accurate and independent information. So that we can live in just and peaceful societies.”

Ressa founded the investigative news site Rappler and Muratov is the editor-in-chief of the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper in Moscow.

Ressa sought a special court order to attend the event, and Muratov’s newspaper closed.
They discussed the state of press freedom at the invitation of the Freedom Cartoonists Foundation, in Geneva.

Bachelet said that despite their crucial role in society, journalists operate under serious threat, whether in conflict zones or in countries with restricted civic space or high levels of organized crime.

“And even in the so-called safe and democratic spaces, their security is increasingly at risk,” said the UN rights chief and former Chilean president.

He devoted most of his speech to the “very real threat that surveillance poses to the work of journalists.”

Use of spyware

“The use of spyware has led to the arrest, intimidation and even murder of journalists. It has endangered their sources. It has endangered their families,” Bachelet reiterated.

Journalists are often forced to take the dangerous path of self-censorship to counter these tools.

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“Pegasus spyware is reported to be used in at least 45 countries, often in total secrecy and outside any legal framework,” Bachelet said, explaining that new and rapidly evolving surveillance methods pose risks while reminding that society has a legal basis to respond.

“The international human rights framework, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, provides that basis,” the UN human rights chief said.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights also provide a framework for the private sector, including private watchdog companies.

“Today, however, countries are failing journalists by not enforcing these frameworks. We are seeing a rapid increase in the international sale of surveillance tools, with the market thriving due to a lack of regulations and controls.”

More generally, Bachelet said the number of journalists detained worldwide has risen to 293, and judicial proceedings are also increasingly being used against investigative journalists to obstruct their work, with 55 journalists killed last year.

The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) said separately on Monday that at least 21 media workers have been killed in just over two months of war in Ukraine, while “many others were wounded, kidnapped, disappeared, threatened, hacked (or ) forced to cease their work”.

Worldwide, 52 professional media employees have “paid with their lives to do their jobs” by 2022, the PEC added.

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UN human rights chief warns journalists are being watched by spyware even in ‘safe spaces’