RSF publishes report on censorship and surveillance of journalists on World Day Against Cyber-Censorship

Reporters Without Borders (RSF for its acronym in French) recently published the report "Censorship and surveillance of journalists: an unscrupulous business,” in which it denounces several cases of digital surveillance of journalists by both democratic and authoritarian governments around the world.

RSF, the international non-profit organization based in Paris, chose March 12 to release its report in order to mark the World Day Against Cyber-Censorship.

In Latin America, the RSF report highlights Mexico as one of the countries that performs these types of cyber espionage.

According to the report, the Israeli company NSO Group and the Italian company Hacking Team, which sell their digital espionage tools exclusively to governments, have Mexico among its main customers.

In 2015, it was reported that different entities of the Mexican government allegedly made purchases of about 6 million euros (almost US $6.4 million) from Hacking Team, the report said.

In that regard, Emmanuel Colombié, head of the Latin America desk for RSF, said: “Given the commercial relations that exist between many Mexican governmental entities and one of the leading exporters of surveillance technology, you cannot help wondering about the ability of Mexico’s journalists to do independent investigative reporting and protect their sources.”

“The lack of transparency on the part of the authorities on the intended use of this technology reinforces our concern. There must be safeguards against its systematic use to target news providers, media professionals, bloggers and human rights activists,” he added.

This situation could leave journalists, bloggers and cyberactivists in a situation of vulnerability, open to abuse by the Mexican government, the organization warned in its report.

RSF also cited the case of Rafael Cabrera, Mexican investigative journalist at the news website Aristeguinoticias.com, who had been spied on by the Mexican government thanks to the program Pegasus from NSO.

In 2015, Cabrera along with other journalists from his work team published the investigation "Casa Blanca", which revealed a corruption scandal involving Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and his family.

Since then, the journalist began to receive strange messages on his cell phone, in which he was told that the presidency would sue for defamation and imprison all the journalists who participated in the report.

Pegasus is a tracking system that can extract text messages, contact lists, calendar records, emails and even the user's location. It turns cell phones into recorders and secretly captures what the phone's camera is watching live.

According to the RSF report, The New York Times reported that in 2013 the Mexican government already contracted the services of NSO. The newspaper cited as an example the payment of US $15 million that the government made to the Israeli company for three projects that it did not specify.

NSO told RSF that as a company it only “helps make the world a safer place by providing authorized government agencies with technology that helps them combat terror and crime.” However, the Israeli company stressed that the ethical and legal use of its products by its customers is of paramount importance to them.

"In case of an alleged breach of the contract, the company will take appropriate action with the respective customer,” NSO told RSF; the assertion has not been confirmed by RSF.

The RSF report also provides a detailed list of measures that journalists can take to ensure the privacy of their communications against any kind of espionage.

For example, the report suggests encrypting email messages, and recommends that both the journalist and his sources use the Cryptocat encryption tool.

This is an extension that is installed on the computer to encode all conversations in instant messaging programs from beginning to end. At the end of the conversation, this tool eliminates them altogether.

Among other tips, it also recommends asking Citizen Lab for help when receiving any suspicious or strange messages or files. Citizen Lab is an organization that analyzes viruses sent to dissidents, journalists or activists to better protect themselves against these threats.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.