Nation States and Criminals Silencing the Fourth Estate

Just a few days ago we saw the brutal murder of 77-year-old Carlos Dominguez in the city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. His death is believed to have been at the hands of the drug cartels. Dominguez was an independent political journalist for the Tamaulipas press. Tamalulipas is an area where the press is “quiet” on the activities of the cartels; this area is known as a “silence zone,” where, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), local media keeps crime coverage vague, omitting descriptions and details. Dominguez is the first murder of 2018 in Mexico of a journalist in Mexico, according to The Guardian.

In June 2017, the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto was shown to have used the services of Israeli firm, NSO Group, to monitor the communications and devices of Mexican journalists. The government claimed that the spyware was only being used to combat crime and terrorism, yet it was found on Televisa anchor Carlos Loret de Mola’s phone and on technology used by prominent Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui, whose investigative work revealed Peña Nieto had been gifted a $6.3 million home by a Mexican conglomerate.

Noted Mexican international journalist Veronica Calderon, in discussing the state’s use of technology to monitor journalists and their work, said the threat is very real. She said she had been targeted when she was employed by a Spanish daily and asked pointed questions during a government press conference in Veracruz. Calderon uses VPNs, two-factor authentication for all her accounts and the Signal private messaging app. She assumes her phone and computer are targeted, and then works from that perspective.

Journalists in Mexico are not alone in being targeted, however.

In Finland, the government searched the home of noted journalist Laura Haminen following her exposé on classified intelligence monitoring program. The sequence of events leading to the search and seizure of Haminen’s computers, phones, tablets and source notes, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, after she attempted to destroy her computer, which contained her source materials. The computer caught fire and the fire department arrived, accompanied by the police, who used the opportunity to gather her devices. Prior to the home search, the Finnish defense ministry filed a criminal complaint against Haminen and the newspaper, Halsingin Sanomat, according to YLE.FI.

Meanwhile in Malta, the noted journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a fatal text message sent from a boat that triggered a car bomb in her vehicle. Caruana Galizia had been heavily involved in the Panama Paper revelations as they pertained to government figures in Malta. Three have been charged with her murder. A motive has not yet been identified, though rampant speculation associates her being silenced with the work of her pen.

In Vietnam use of social media, including blogging, may get you sent to the slammer for seven or more years. Such was the case of Nguyen Van Hoa, who was found guilty of “spreading anti-state propaganda.” Hoa was the second blogger sentenced to prison for reporting on a toxic spill caused by a Taiwan-owned steel factory, which poisoned marine life along a 120-mile swath of Vietnam’s coast. The use of social networks, including Facebook, by Hoa and others shed more light on the topic of the fish-kill by toxic poisoning than the government was comfortable with.

Russia’s efforts to silence journalists is legion. The 2015 experience of Russian television anchor Pavel Lobkov is a prime example. He was getting ready to go on the air when he received a message on his mobile phone stating his Facebook account contents, including private messages, was being shared across the web. It was subsequently learned that Lobkov was one of many Russian journalists targeted by the Russian Fancy Bear group.

Nation states and criminals acting at the behest of nation states will continue to target those within the fourth estate who are shining light on illegal or unethical behavior. Calderon is right in assuming that her devices and person are constantly being monitored. Working from this perspective will allow journalists to put in place appropriate countermeasures. Regardless of personal technology defenses employed, all journalists should avail themselves to the many resources identified by the CPJ, and others on communicating and handling data securely.

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March 1, 2018

Christopher Burgess

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is a writer, speaker and commentator on security issues. He is a former Senior Security Advisor to Cisco and served 30+ years within the CIA which awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century”. He also founded the non-profit: Senior Online Safety.

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