In the course of two months, U.S. major newspapers mostly neglected to provide substantive coverage on expansive reporting on deliberate targeting and surveillance of journalists and activists with Israeli spyware software. One exception was The Washington Post, which is a partner on this collaborative reporting project and has committed “extraordinary resources” to report on the story.
On July 18, Amnesty International and French nonprofit Forbidden Stories, in collaboration with 17 other international publications (including The Washington Post and The Guardian), released The Pegasus Project, a series of ongoing investigative reporting regarding the surveillance software Pegasus, manufactured and sold by Israeli company NSO Group.
The Pegasus investigation has revealed that from 2016 to 2021, “at least 180 journalists in 20 countries” and 85 human rights activists have been targeted by their governments and private clients with the spyware. Over 50,000 phone numbers were found to be possible targets of monitoring. Clients in countries including India, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia have all been implicated in widespread hacking and surveillance of citizens, particularly those who have been involved with journalism and media. Although the NSO Group’s spyware abuses have been documented before, the group recently stated that its spyware is given only to “vetted government agencies” to be used against terrorists. But Amnesty International’s forensic analysis thoroughly undermines the organization’s statement.
The consequences of the Pegasus spyware usage have been wide-ranging and severe. The spyware works by secretly breaking into the operating system of the target’s phone, allowing whomever is monitoring full access to emails, text messages, the exact GPS location of the phone, and more. Not only is this an obvious privacy violation, but Pegasus has been linked to murder, harassment, and kidnapping. Mexican reporter Cecilio Pineda Birto was found murdered in 2017 shortly after “his mobile phone number was selected as a possible target for surveillance by a Mexican client of the spyware company NSO Group.” Princess Latifa of Dubai, who had escaped her home country in 2018, was forcibly taken back, and the Pegasus software has been potentially linked to her family finding her location, as she and her close friends had been “selected as people of interest by clients of NSO Group.” Slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s fiance was also surveilled by Pegasus clients just days after his death. In India, 40 journalists “from nearly every major media outlet in the country were selected as potential targets between 2017-2021.”
David Kay, former United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression, summed up the destructive nature of this expansive surveillance networking in an interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists, saying:
What was striking was the extent to which governments – clients of NSO, but undoubtedly of other companies as well – see the [technology] as a tool to use against basic pillars of democratic life. [The reporting] highlights the very real possibility that this tool can be used against journalists, activists, and others in a way that is [supporting] autocracy, dictatorships, those who are trying to undermine democracy.
In the two months following the launch of the Pegasus Project and as reporting continues, five major U.S. newspapers — the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today — failed to provide substantive reporting on major news about the spyware. All five papers published a total of 13 articles on the topic from July 18 to September 24, and none of these newspapers published more than four stories about it. The New York Times and Chicago Tribune cherry-picked which parts of the coverage they wanted to focus on and ignored almost all other breaking news about Pegasus. USA Today and the Los Angeles Times both posted The Associated Press’ wire story about Pegasus right when news broke but then dropped off coverage almost entirely in the following months.
Recent revelations, like the months-long surveillance of the late Emirati activist Alaa Al-Siddiq and the commissioner of the European Union calling for prosecution of those hackers who engaged in illegal hacking, were not covered by these outlets. When newspapers did focus on Pegasus, their coverage was largely aimed at security bugs in Apple phones. The Wall Street Journal, whose sole article on Pegasus spyware was on the flaw in Apple software, undersold the NSO Group as a company that “sells hacking tools used by governments world-wide to conduct surveillance.” There was not much context about how the spyware is being weaponized against civilians. Similarly, most newspapers failed to highlight that U.S. officials suspect a collaborative relationship between the group and the Israeli government.
Unlike The Washington Post, which published 18 articles and an op-ed on the story, other outlets quickly moved on. For example, The New York Times featured the Pegasus Project in an article on July 18 and on its front page on July 19 but by July 20, it had vanished from the pages, not mentioned again until July 28, when it published an op-ed. The Los Angeles Times had a gap of nearly two months in between articles on the spyware.
A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, delivered a speech to Brown University in which he decried efforts to suppress journalism in the U.S. and abroad, as well as espousing that a free press is “foundational” to a thriving democracy. Journalistic suppression is at the heart of what many are doing with the Pegasus spyware since many countries where it has been used have seen governments suppress independent media. It is also putting human rights activists and dissidents at extreme risk across the globe. It is irresponsible for outlets like The New York Times to preach pro-journalism and free speech sentiment while largely ignoring what anti-surveillance activist Edward Snowden has deemed “the story of the year.” U.S. newspapers should be extensively reporting on the Pegasus Project to ensure that the rampant abuses and violations that are occurring with theat spyware are brought to a halt.
Media Matters searched articles in the Factiva database from the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today for the term “Pegasus” from July 18 through September 24, 2021.
We included any article about the Pegasus Project or the NSO Group’s spyware, which we defined as articles where the Pegasus Project or the NSO Group’s spyware was mentioned in the headline or lead paragraph.