Journalists 'targeted by Moroccan government' with spyware

Dozens of journalists 'targeted by Moroccan government' with Pegasus Spyware
3 min read
19 July, 2021
An iPhone belonging to Moroccan journalist Hicham Mansouri was infected with the Pegasus spyware more than 20 times during a three-month period.

Nearly 200 journalists around the world have been selected as targets by NSO clients, according to the Pegasus Project [Getty]

More than 30 journalists in Morocco are thought to have been targets of a spyware tool, known as Pegasus, developed by an Israeli company, according to an explosive report published on Sunday. 

Press freedom group Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International said they gained access to a leak of more than 50,000 records of phone numbers that the clients of Israeli company NSO Group selected for surveillance. It is believed that the Moroccan government is one of their clients. 

Analysis of the records found that at least 180 journalists in 20 countries were selected for surveillance. 

This included at least 35 journalists in four countries selected as targets by an NSO client alleged to be the Moroccan government, according to a report by Forbidden Stories. 

"The point [of surveillance] is presumably to track the private lives of individuals in order to find a hook on which they can hang any big trial," said Ahmed Benchemsi, a former journalist and founder of the independent media organisations TelQuel, and Nichane, who now leads communications for the MENA region at Human Rights Watch. 

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Forbidden Stories said forensic analysis was conducted on 67 phones in total, including the phone of Moroccan journalist Hicham Mansouri. This is the only way of conclusively determine whether a device has been compromised. 

The analysis by Amnesty International’s Security Lab found that Mansouri’s previous iPhone had been infected with Pegasus more than 20 times from February to April 2021. 

Co-founder of the Moroccan Association of Investigative Journalists (MAIJ), Mansouri was jailed in 2015 for ten months for the crime of "adultery" after his home was raided by authorities. He later fled to France and claimed asylum. 

"We don't see ourselves as dangerous because we do things that we consider to be legitimate," said Mansouri to Forbidden Stories. 

Moroccan newspaper editors Taoufik Bouachrine and Soulaimane Raissouni were also selected as targets according to reports. Both journalists have also been detained and given lengthy jail sentences - Bouachrine on charges related to human trafficking and sex crimes and Soulaimane for sexual assault. 

NSO denies the allegations. In a statement sent to The New Arab, it said it questioned the validity of the data.

The company said that while 50,000 records of phone numbers were obtained by the investigation, forensic analysis to determine whether a phone had been hacked was only conducted on a limited number of devices. 

NSO maintains that their products are "sold to vetted foreign governments [and] cannot be used to conduct cyber-surveillance within the United States". 

The organisation said they “will continue to investigate all credible claims of misuse and take appropriate action”, stating that they have previously shut down a customers’ system “due to confirmed misuse”. 

When asked about the allegations, Moroccan authorities said they "do not understand the context of the request", according to The Guardian. 

The authorities added that previous allegations published by Amnesty International and relayed by Forbidden Stories "have already been the subject of an official response by the Moroccan authorities, who categorically denied such allegations".