In 2008, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Amnesty International sent official letters to the CEOs of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft asking for an observation of a Day Against Cyber Censorship. This online event continues to be celebrated annually on 12 March and its aim is to rally support for unrestricted Internet access as well as to draw attention to government censorship all over the globe.
To mark this year’s World Day Against Cyber Censorship, RSF has published its first list of press freedom’s 20 worst digital predators in 2020. These include government agencies as well as private companies whose digital technologies are used to target, harass and spy on journalists in an attempt to curtail users’ ability to get news and information.
It is the first time RSF has published a list of online groups or digital entities whose activities are tantamount to preying on journalism and, while it is by no means exhaustive, it acts as a good indicator of the dangers faced by both journalists and users.
RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said RSF also wanted to highlight that this often took place in democratic countries.
“We have decided to publish this list of 20 digital predators in order not only to expose another aspect of press freedom violations but also to draw attention to the fact that these accomplices sometimes act from or within democratic countries. Opposition to despotic regimes also means ensuring that the weapons for suppressing journalism are not delivered to them from abroad.”
The list is divided into four main categories depending on their activities: These are harassment, state censorship, disinformation and spying and surveillance. Within these categories, the list highlights the name of the online group or entity, its location, the methods deployed and, most importantly, the known targets.
It includes Russia’s Kremlin troll army that spreads false reports and videos or even publishes personal information. One of their main targets is Finnish investigative journalist Jessikka Aro who wrote Putin’s Troll Army, a book where she shed light on the propaganda they spread about those who denounce their activities.
There is also the Roskomnadzor, the Russian Federal Agency for Communications and Media Supervision, which blocked almost half a million websites without prior warning or following legal procedure. This is similar to the state censorship practised by the Venezuelan National Telecommunications Commission that shuts down sites without the possibility of appeal.
The lengths to which governments will go in order to curb or intimidate journalists are as numerous as they are creative. Coordinated online harassment in countries like India, Russia, Brazil and Mexico includes social media campaigns that include violent threats, spreading false reports or publishing journalist’s personal information (known as doxxing). In Algeria for example, online trolls have attempted to discredit journalist’s work by reporting alleged abuses to international online platforms that resulted in RSF correspondents losing access to their Facebook accounts.
The list also describes the two primary state censorship tactics in countries such as Egypt, Venezuela, China and Iran. The first is very simple and direct through blocking websites, messaging apps, news websites or, in India’s case, disconnecting the internet altogether. The second is state-sponsored disinformation campaigns such as those organised in the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
The last category on the list is dedicated to private companies that have been used by governments to spy or monitor journalists’ activities. The services of these companies, which interestingly are based in Europe, include deploying spyware capable of extracting files from a targeted device, intercepting phone calls and using surveillance software in order to extract personal data on smartphones.
The full report can be read here.