How far is World Cup host Qatar ready to go to control media coverage?

According to The Sunday Times and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), Qatar is suspected of having recruited hackers to break into the private email accounts of three journalists who had written stories criticising the Gulf emirate. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for all possible light to be shed on this case, which would constitute a new attack on press freedom if the facts are confirmed.

“The suspected hacking into the email accounts of these journalists, if confirmed, is extremely serious and poses the question – how far is the Qatari government prepared to go to control what the media report? This latest apparent attempt to restrict press freedom before the FIFA World Cup is all the more disturbing as it violates the confidentiality of the work of journalists and, potentially, that of their sources. It is essential that all possible light is shed on this matter.”

Jonathan Dagher, head of RSF’s Middle East desk

 

According to the investigation published by the London-based Sunday Times newspaper and the TBIJ on 5 November, Jonathan Calvert, the head of the newspaper’s Insight team, Yann Philippin, a French investigative reporter for the French news website Mediapart, and Associated Press reporter Alan Suderman were among the targets of a group of hackers based in India in 2019 and 2020. All three had written about alleged corruption in connection with Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The three hacking operations were initiated in 2019 by WhiteInk, a group that specialises in breaking into VIP accounts, according to the report by The Sunday Times Insight team. And it was reportedly carried out at the request of an intermediary suspected of being linked to the Qatari government and being tasked with targeting people who had investigated corruption in Qatar, which is the main client of this group of hackers, one of them acknowledged.

Of the three journalists, it seems that only Calvert’s email account was actually hacked, inasmuch as the word “completed” appears alongside his name in the hackers’ database, to which the Insight journalists had access. The Sunday Times’ investigative reporters had been among those who led the way in exposing the alleged corruption that resulted in FIFA’s 2010 decision to award this year’s World Cup to Qatar.

Philippin – who wrote a detailed story in December 2019 about the French judicial investigation into how Qatar managed to be awarded the World Cup – was able to thwart the hacking attempt, spotted in phishing emails, by changing his phone and computer, The Sunday Times said.

Speaking to RSF, Philippin described the hacking attempt as "massive" and "sophisticated" and said he received 16 phishing emails in the space of two weeks. The hackers went to great lengths to deceive him and impersonate those close to him and it was only thanks to his vigilance that he averted the hack. “If the facts are confirmed, it would be a very serious attack,” he told RSF. “Without the confidentiality of sources, there can be no investigative journalism, no free press."

Mediapart filed a complaint about the hacking attempt with the Paris prosecutor’s office in February 2021 but the case was closed in December because the police had been unable to identify those responsible. Mediapart announced its plans to resubmit the complaint following The Sunday Times’ revelations. 

The Qatari government’s spokesman told Mediapart that the reports in the British media were “false” and that Qatar was considering the possibility of suing those responsible for the “baseless allegations.”

Qatar's restrictions on press freedom have been receiving renewed attention from the international media in the run-up to the World Cup. In a recent press release, RSF pointed out that the new press accreditation that Qatar is issuing to journalists wishing to cover the World Cup is very restrictive and indicates that it wants to discourage or even prevent the foreign media from covering anything other than football. Meanwhile, the government-funded Qatari media routinely denounce any press criticism of Qatar as part of a conspiracy to smear the emirate’s reputation ahead of the World Cup

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