RSF Finds Pegasus Spyware in Phones of Togolese Journalists

Опубликовано: 25 Январь 2024

Mobile Phone PegasusDespite other cases of alleged spyware surveillance against journalists in Togo in the past, the ones revealed by RSF are the first two that have been proven and confirmed. (Photo: Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, Picryl, License)

Tech analysis showed that the phones of two Togolese reporters, currently on trial in a defamation case brought by a minister, showed traces of spyware typical of Pegasus, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said.

The Pegasus spyware, developed by the Israeli NSO Group, is capable of infiltrating phones, acquiring, and monitoring sensitive information such as text messages, calls, and passwords. RSF revealed that at the time the journalists were spied on, the Togolese government was a client of NSO Group.

The phones of Loïc Lawson, a journalist with the independent weekly newspaper Flambeau des Démocrates, and Anani Sossou, a freelance journalist, were infected, according to RSF. Both were sued by Kodjo Adedze, the minister of urban planning, housing, and land reform in Togo. They were arrested in December and spent 18 days in pre-trial detention.

The journalists had reported about the theft of 600,000 euros (US$ 654,210.00) from the minister’s home. Adedze contested the reported amount, and the trial began in January. The journalists are accused of "attacking [the minister's] honor" and "inciting revolt."

RSF found evidence of 23 instances of spyware intrusion on Lawson’s phone between February 1 and July 10, 2021. The surveillance activity on Sossou’s phone on October 25, 2021, was similar to that on Lawson’s.

“It was while investigating the circumstances of the completely arbitrary arrest of these journalists and the charges brought against them that we discovered that they had, in fact, been in the crosshairs of the Togolese authorities for a long time, as shown by the industrial-scale cyber-espionage to which Loïc Lawson was subjected in 2021,” said Arnaud Froger, head of RSF's investigation desk.

“These are the first proven cases of journalists being targeted by spyware in Togo,” he added.

The spyware intrusion on Lawson’s phone was very frequent, “up to several times a week for six months,” explained RSF. Lawson expressed concern about the perpetrators' access to his journalist’s data and the identification of his sources.

This kind of pressure on media workers in Togo is not new.

RSF said that in 2021, journalists Ferdinand Ayité, Luc Abaki, and Carlos Ketohou were allegedly targeted by Pegasus spyware, but those cases could not be confirmed because RSF was unable to conduct tech analysis at the time.

In March 2023, journalists from the news website L’Alternative, Ayité, and editor Isidore Kouwonou, were arrested and subsequently had to leave Togo due to intimidation.

In their absence, they were handed a three-year prison term for charges of "disrespecting authority" and "spreading false information on social media." These charges were brought forward based on complaints filed by two government ministers.

RSF attempted to obtain a comment from Togolese Communication Minister and Government Spokesman Yawa Kouigan regarding the Lawson and Sossou’s case but received no response.