Source: The Guardian
Draft legislation published by EU leaders that would allow national security agencies to spy on journalists has been condemned by media and civil society groups as dangerous and described by a leading MEP as “incomprehensible”.
On Wednesday, the European Council – representing the governments of EU member states – published a draft of the European Media Freedom Act that would allow spyware to be placed on journalists’ phones if a national government thought it necessary.
Unusually, the council did not take the step of holding an in-person meeting of ministers responsible for media before the draft was published.
The Dutch MEP Sophie in’t Veld, who has overseen the European parliament’s investigation into the use of Pegasus spyware on journalists and public figures, said the claim that permission to spy on the press was needed in the interests of national security was “a lie”.
“I think what the council is doing is unacceptable. It’s also incomprehensible. Well, it’s incomprehensible if they are serious about democracy,” said In ‘t Veld.
The first draft of the act – originally tabled by the European Commission to strengthen protections for the independence of journalism in countries where it is under threat such as Poland and Hungary - had included strong safeguards against the use of spyware.
The European Parliament must agree on the draft before it becomes law.
The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), which represents more than 300,000 members of the press in 45 countries including the UK, accused EU leaders of holding the principles of media freedom in “dangerous disregard”.
The EFJ said the move was a “blow to media freedom” that would “put journalists even more at risk” than they are already. Giving governments the power to place spyware on journalists’ phones on the grounds of “national security” would have a “chilling effect on whistleblowers” and other sources, it warned.
“We know too well how the defense of national security is misused to justify media freedom violations,” it added in a statement calling for the European Parliament to “save” the draft legislation from this threat.
As it stands, member states would be able to hack into journalists’ phones if they suspect their sources could be talking to criminals involved in anything the state perceives to be a threat.
The change was led by France, which won backing for an amendment to protect journalists but not “without prejudice to the member states’ responsibility for safeguarding national security”.
If the act became law in its current state, British journalists working in the EU would also be at risk of having their phones and computers surveilled.
Last year French intelligence investigators confirmed that Pegasus spyware had been found on the phones of three journalists including a senior member of staff at the TV news station France 24.
The non-profit Forbidden Stories media organization and Amnesty International said it believed that at least 180 journalists may have been selected as people of interest in advance of possible surveillance by government clients of the Israeli NSO group.
NSO has long insisted that the governments to whom it licenses Pegasus are contractually bound only to use the powerful spying tool to fight “serious crime and terrorism”.
Last week, European Digital Rights (EDRi), a network of NGOs and digital rights advocates, called on the European Council to “reconsider” its national security exemptions for spying on the press.
“The council is taking dangerous steps towards legalizing unacceptable forms of surveillance against journalists and their sources,” said Chloé Berthélémy, senior policy adviser at EDRi.