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4 Oct, 2023 13:54

EU won’t protect journalists from government spying – activists

MEPs have left an opening for the use of spyware, which may lead to abuse, critics believe
EU won’t protect journalists from government spying – activists

The hope for a full ban on the use of spyware against journalists in the EU is “dead,” after MEPs backed watered-down media regulations that allow the authorities to infect phones in the name of national security, media freedom advocates claim.

The European Parliament debated on Tuesday a series of amendments to the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA), a piece of legislation first proposed in 2022. The draft law deals with issues that news outlets face in the modern age, from ownership transparency to the power of tech giants, which can obfuscate or ban reporting as they wish, based on their terms of use.

The MEPs stopped short of outlawing the use of spyware – sophisticated hacking tools that can breach electronic devices and repurpose them for invasive surveillance – against journalists. Pegasus is perhaps the most notorious example, as its use for political purposes has been widely covered in the media.

Instead of an outright ban, EU lawmakers said these tactics can be an option of last resort, provided that sufficient guardrails are in place.

“The use of spyware is effectively banned in investigations that concern the professional work of media service providers and their employees,” MEP and rapporteur on the European Media Freedom Act Ramona Strugariu said regarding the adopted text, as quoted by The Guardian.

Advocates of media freedom believe that the mechanism will end up being abused by the authorities.

“Getting a full ban on spyware is basically dead now,” campaigner Chloe Berthelemy told the British newspaper. “The European parliament missed a unique opportunity to protect journalists against abusive state surveillance using nefarious spying tools.”

Berthelemy, a senior policy adviser at European Digital Rights, co-wrote an opinion piece last week urging MEPs to not take a “pragmatic” approach instead of “doing everything possible to prevent real, grievous harm to journalists.”

Pegasus, which was developed by the Israeli firm NSO, was allegedly used to breach the phones of over 50,000 people, including politicians, journalists, activists, and business figures, according to a list of purported targets that was leaked in 2021.

The spyware drew media attention last month following revelations that an EU state used it to spy on Galina Timchenko, the founder of the Latvia-based Russian news outlet Meduza. Traces of Pegasus were reportedly found during forensic analysis of her device. Meduza said it did not know which country was responsible, but suggested it had reasons to suspect that Latvia was involved.

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