The British Middle East Eye website revealed that the phone of its head of office in Turkey, journalist Recep Soylu, was hacked by the Israeli Pegasus program, suggesting that Saudi Arabia is behind it.
Amnesty International said the program was active on Soylu’s phone between February and July 2021, and infected him via the Turkish journalist’s iMessage. The organization was unable to determine who ordered the hacking of the phone.
But the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an investigative media consortium, confirmed that Soylu’s number was included in a leaked list in 2019 and that Saudi Arabia likely selected the Turkish reporter as a “person of interest” to be targeted by Pegasus.
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It is unclear whether Saudi Arabia ordered the hack of Pegasus on Soylu’s phone in 2021.
Middle East Eye office manager angry
Soylu said he felt “violated” the idea that individuals from another country or NSO group could access his phone data and jeopardize the safety of his sources.
“I am very angry and very angry at the idea that someone sitting in Saudi Arabia or an NSO group could have access to my documents, texts of my messages, my emails and my private photos,” he said.
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He continued, “The hack shows more than anything else that we are doing our job in Middle East Eye and will continue to hold to account countries in the region that routinely silence the voices of journalists and activists.”
Etienne Meiner, technician at Amnesty International’s Security Lab said: “We have confirmed through analysis of Recep Soylu’s phone that it was hacked by the Pegasus spyware several times between February 2021 and July 2021. We saw the first evidence of a successful attack on the phone February 9, 2021. Then seven more successful hacks until July 5, 2021.”
Meiner said traces of analysis indicate that “the device was compromised using a zero-day iMessage exploit that can silently install Pegasus on the device. We’ve seen the same iMessage exploit chain used to infect other Pegasus targets. It is not technically possible to confirm the actions taken by Pegasus on the device, or to attribute this attack to a specific NSO client.”
Targeting media covering Khashoggi’s murder
Pegasus, produced by the Israeli NSO Group, has been used by governments, including Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to illegally access phone data of activists and journalists around the world.
Among the notable victims of the Pegasus breach was Middle East Eye columnist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 by Saudi officials.
French President Emmanuel Macron has also been targeted by Pegasus, along with Egyptian diplomats and Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf, according to reports from Project Pegasus.
Soylu initially suspected his phone had been targeted when he came across media reports about Pegasus and how Saudi Arabia targeted journalists who covered Khashoggi’s murder.
“When I first saw Pegasus reports and how journalists who covered Khashoggi’s murder with Pegasus were targeted by Saudi Arabia, it raised my suspicions, especially given how randomly my phone crashed,” said Soylu, who worked for the Daily Sabah. In Turkey while covering Khashoggi’s murder.
“These concerns led me to contact the Organized Crime and Corruption Project, who gained access to a list of numbers targeted by Pegasus. They confirmed that I was on the list of Turkish numbers chosen by Saudi Arabia to spy on using Pegasus in 2019. The project then referred me to Amnesty, who spent a week analyzing my phone and confirmed that Pegasus had targeted my phone.”
David Hearst: A direct attack on press freedom
Middle East Eye editor-in-chief David Hurst also condemned the hack and said it was a direct attack on press freedom.
“If sources are afraid to speak out because of the fear that their words will be recorded by their superiors, foreign agents or governments, the secret relationship upon which the press is based falls apart,” Hearst said.
“Everyone will suffer as a result,” he added. We need freelance journalists and journalists now like never before, especially in the Middle East. Middle East Eye will continue to present the uncomfortable and uncomfortable truth no matter how many attempts are made to stop us.”
NSO declined to comment after being contacted by Middle East Eye several times.
Mercury, a public relations agency that NSO has contracted to handle media requests, said NSO will not comment on Pegasus-related stories.
The Saudi embassy in London declined to comment at the time of writing.
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