Don’t Hack the Messenger

Across the world people gathered last month to remember murdered journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée. They gathered in Silicon Valley’s Palo Alto, in Europe’s capital cities and the length and breadth of Kuciak’s native Slovakia.

The person who ordered the killings has not been officially identified. At a media freedom conference in Bratislava on 5.3.2019, Slovakia’s outgoing President Andre Ciska addressed this question with leaders of Europe’s publishing community. Meanwhile during the twelve months since 21. February 2018, those who seek to silence investigative journalists in order to cover up corruption have switched to other methods.

Cyber weapons are being offered for sale on the Dark Net. According to the hackers who are selling them, they can take down a news website or re-write the news, for example by changing a headline. And this service is offered for as little as $200!

Less sophisticated, but even more effective, is the use of Distributed Denial of Service or DDoS actions.

Malta’s opposition news portal The Shift News experienced a devastating DDoS attack on 14. January 2019. It followed the publication of a healthcare scandal involving the concession to run three hospitals. The site went offline. Deploring the “chilling effect” of this attack, the Council of Europe raised an official alert on its Platform. The Shift News restored its site and the story is online again.

However the Maltese journalists investigating corruption know that they are in grave personal danger too, ever since reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated by a car bomb near her Malta home in 2017. DDoS is only one cyber weapon used to intimidate journalists. Editor-in-chief of The Shift News, Caroline Muscat and activist Tina Urso have experienced a flood of hate speech and threats in social media. Urso’s personal details and her parents’ home address have been shared. Much of this vile abuse is automated using bots. Yet some of the human authors of this cyber-bullying are close to the Maltese government, so they enjoy impunity.

Paragon of Press Freedom

In contrast, the Finnish authorities have set down a marker that online bullying of journalists will not be tolerated. Finland is famous as a paragon of press freedom. Yet it is on the frontline of the information wars between its neighbour Russia and Europe. So when Finnish YLE TV journalist Jessica Aro started getting online threats and abuse, Russia was where she went to find the trolls behind it. Aro tracked down the criminals to St Petersburg. Her investigation earned her the Bonnier Award for Journalism, Scandinavia’s top prize. But she had a long wait for justice. Two and a half years later the judge at Helsinki District Court imposed a 22-month prison sentence on Ilja Janitskin, founder of the pro-Kremlin HV-Lehti website. He and his accomplices had to pay 136,000 euros in compensation.

Peter Warren of the UK-based Cyber Security Research Institute comments: “The attack on journalists is now physical and murderous as well as technological. Attempts to intimidate journalists should be strenuously countered by national governments, the EU, United Nations and NATO, because truth is a weapon. If it were not, countries like China, Russia, Turkey, Hungary and the USA would not make such efforts to control it in their own interests.”

Another think tank, the US Institute for the Future, revealed widespread state- sponsored trolling.

There is also constant blocking of Twitter accounts by the Turkish government, documented by Alp Toker of Net Blocks (formerly Turkey Blocks). And there have been repeated attacks on Meydan TV, run by exiled journalists from Azerbaijan. Meydan and other critical media sites were legally blocked by the government on the grounds of “national security” during the 2018 election campaign and a judge upheld the blocks. At that time the Meydan YouTube channel was taken down by its owner Google in response to a spurious claim of copyright infringement.

State Trolling

Because so many attacks on the press come from state actors, it is rare for trolls to be convicted and jailed and in Europe penalties for computer-based crime are typically more lenient than in the United States, for example.

It is not even a crime to publish personal details alongside threats and insults. This is known as “doxing” in hacking circles. A twenty-year-old man from Hesse was arrested in January 2019 after a massive data theft from the German parliament and online publication of politicians’ and journalists’ personal details. According to Die Welt newspaper, the hacker told police he wanted to “expose people whose public pronouncements annoyed him”.  Later he erased the data by deleting it 32 times from his hard drive and took the computer to a municipal recycling depot. After questioning he walked free.

This example of doxing, although less malicious than the Malta cases, is just as damaging to the journalists involved. For they rely on information from sources and whistleblowers who trust them to keep their identities and the inside information they provide safe and secret. If the journalists cannot even keep their own identities secret then the circle of trust is broken.

The Noble Art of Self-Defense

That is where Daniel Moßbrucker comes in. A human rights defender at Reporters Without Borders, he trains media workers in digital self-defense. But it is an uphill battle.

The latest danger, experienced by British journalist Rori Donaghy, is spyware delivered through the Apple Iphone, using an Imessage. This gives the spy – be it a state actor or a corrupt business owner – access to all the data and photographs on the phone as well as details of its owner’s movements.

Commenting on Moßbrucker’s January 2019 self-defence workshop in Berlin, Dutch investigative reporter Sanne Terlingen said: “The technological tools need to be appropriate for the context. Before I set off, I got all this technical kit and knowhow. But when I arrived in Djibouti I was the only white person with two satellite phones and all this encrypted technology. So that made me conspicuous rather than enhancing my security.“

Some encryption tools used by journalists can become a liability in themselves. The Turkish government cited the fact that he used Bylock to hide his communications as a reason for detaining Vice News fixer Mohamed Rasool for more than four months. Turkey’s attacks on journalists extend to outright blocking, too. Constant blocking of Twitter accounts by the Turkish government has been documented by Alp Toker and the activists at Net Blocks (formerly Turkey Blocks).

Yet despite all these attacks, the truth will come out. The European Commission is investing thousands of tax Euros to support cross-border investigative journalism. Two of the teams funded have continued the work of Daphne Caruana Galizia and of Jan Kuciak, and published damning reports. They prove that cyber attacks, trolls and even bombs and bullets can never kill the truth.