RSF demands a thorough investigation after Pegasus was used to spy on a prominent exiled Russian journalist
Publisher of the Riga-based independent news website Meduza, Galina Timchenko, was put under surveillance during a stay in Berlin. Deeply shocked by another scandalous case of journalist surveillance via NSO’s spyware, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the German government and all parties involved to conduct a swift and thorough investigation.
A report published on 13 September by Access Now and the Citizen Lab has revealed that the Pegasus spyware was used to spy on Galina Timchenko, Russian journalist and publisher of the independent news website Meduza. According to the report, Timchenko’s smartphone was infected with the software on or around 10 February 2023, when she was in Berlin for meetings. Until her device was checked in June 2023, her safety and that of her sources was put at risk.
During this period, RSF organised several meetings with exiled Russian journalists and editors at which confidential and sensitive topics were discussed. The organisation is deeply shocked to learn that numerous Russian journalists and, potentially, its own staff could be affected. When journalists can no longer meet and exchange information without fear of surveillance, it has a direct impact on their work. The German government is among those named in the report as potentially responsible for the surveillance.
“The German authorities must react quickly by thoroughly investigating this shocking case. For RSF, it raises many pressing questions including: To what extent was the German government involved in the surveillance measures and aware of them? We demand an immediate and in-depth investigation of the facts as well as strict consequences for all parties involved.
Galina Timchenko founded Meduza as an independent media outlet exiled in the Latvian capital Riga. The website, censored by the Russian authorities and unblocked by RSF, publishes reports in Russian and English. Two weeks before the infection of Timchenko’s device, on 26 January 2023, the media was labelled “undesirable” in Russia, meaning that collaborating with it or quoting it is a crime. The outlet was declared a “foreign agent” in Russia in April 2022 – in that same year, Timchenko was named European Journalist of the Year for her tireless efforts to promote access to independent information for the Russian population.
In their report, Access Now and the Citizen Lab listed three hypotheses about the possible origin of the hacking attack: according to the first hypothesis, Germany, Estonia and Latvia are the main suspects; the second possibility holds responsible the states allied with Russia, such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. The states listed by both hypotheses have already been suspected of using Pegasus. The third hypothesis states that Russia itself could be responsible for the espionage.
Galina Timchenko is considered a key source even in upper political circles in Germany and the EU. The information and contacts to which she and her media outlet Meduza have access are potentially highly relevant to many bodies. Berlin is a popular destination for Russian journalists living in exile. Many of them meet there frequently at various top-secret locations to exchange information and attend discreet conferences.
In 2021, research by Forbidden Stories, the Süddeutsche Zeitung and other international media in connection with the Pegasus Project revealed the disturbing scale of state surveillance, made possible by the Israeli NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. This malware gives attackers almost limitless and covert access to all data on infected devices – emails, encrypted messages, chats, accounts and other services connected to the device. It can also activate a smartphone's camera and voice functions and make recordings without the user’s knowledge. It can even be used to manipulate files. More than 180 journalists from 20 countries have been identified as possible targets of surveillance software. RSF filed a complaint against NSO Group in France, which triggered a judicial investigation.
One of the main problems with government spyware like Pegasus, as well as other spying software, is that these tools are extremely sophisticated and powerful, yet at the same time virtually unregulated. In response to this problem, RSF launched the Digital Security Lab in the summer of 2022. Journalists who fear that their professional communication may be under digital surveillance can contact the experts at RSF Germany's Berlin office. In addition, RSF is campaigning for worldwide legal controls on the export and sale of such spyware.
Since Russia’s war of aggression against all Ukraine began, numerous Russian media outlets and renowned journalists have fled Kremlin’s political persecution and gone into exile in Europe. Now based in countries like Germany, Latvia and Estonia, they continue their important work to ensure that independent information continues to reach Russian-speaking audiences.