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In Morocco, the expression the ‘walls have ears’ now applies to your phone. A massive international investigation found that a Moroccan operator was among a number of state intelligence agencies that purchased the notorious Pegasus spyware – created by the Israeli cyber company NSO Group – to try and hack into thousands of phone numbers, according to a leaked list obtained by Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International and shared with a consortium of 17 media organizations.
Pegasus enables hackers to access phone messages, photos, emails, or record the users calls. It can also activate microphones from infected devices to eavesdrop on conversations taking place around the phone.
Among the 10,000 numbers targeted by Moroccan intelligence were Moroccan and French journalists, lawyers, rights defenders, and Algerian politicians. The phone number of French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron also appeared on the list, and in a bizarre plot twist, so did one belonging to the Moroccan King Mohammad VI and those of his entourage.
Radio France, which is closely investigating the use of Pegasus to target the Moroccan Royal family, said that it was impossible to verify whether the King had ordered the head of national security – Abdellatif Hammouchi, a man he appointed in 2015 – to hack his phone and those of his family members in an apparent bid to protect him. The other possibility is that Moroccan intelligence stepped way over its boundaries for reasons that remain unclear.
Macron, for his part, isn’t happy about being a target of foreign espionage. He recently called the newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet for clarification about the allegations, yet Bennet declined to disclose details of their conversation to reporters.
Meanwhile, Morocco has filed defamation claims against Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories – a French non-profit whose mission is to continue the work of murdered and imprisoned journalists.
“The Moroccan state…wants all possible light cast on these false allegations from these two organizations, who make claims without any concrete or demonstrative evidence whatsoever,” the lawyer, Olivier Baratelli, said in a statement.
Despite Morocco’s denial, Amnesty has plenty of evidence that the kingdom has used Pegasus to target critics and journalists. In 2020, the rights group found that the phone of the award-winning reporter Omar Radi was attacked multiple times by the Israeli spyware for his work in exposing government land grabs by corrupt officials.
In the same summer, Radi was summoned ten times to the National Brigade of Judicial Police (BNPJ) where he was repeatedly accused of spying for British intelligence. On the ninth time he was summoned, he was charged with rape in an attempt to slander his reputation and derail his career. Just last week, Radi was convicted for both crimes and sentenced to six-years in prison, sparking outrage from rights groups.
A similar ordeal befell Taoufic Bouachrine — the editor-in-chief of al-Jarida al-Oukhra – who was convicted of sexually assaulting a number of women. He was eventually convicted and imprisoned for 15 years in February 2018.
The Pegasus leaks found that Bouachrine’s rape victims were targeted by the spyware, and then presumably blackmailed into falsely accusing him of rape. Two of the alleged victims later retracted their accusations, with one claiming that police bullied her into framing Bouachrine.
Another woman, Afaf Bernani, a journalist for Akhbar Al-Youm, revealed that her testimony was falsified to bring a case against her colleague.
“I testified that he was innocent and that the police falsified my testimony. The prosecutor did not like that and somehow convinced the judge that I was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome,” she said
The notable press-freedom advocate, historian, and opinion writer, Maati Monjib, also had his phone hacked by Moroccan authorities using Israeli spyware, according to a laboratory analysis carried out by Amnesty International in 2019.
Monjib is among four people who have been charged with undermining the integrity of the state, a bogus charge that could eventually land them five years in prison if convicted.
The targeting of Radi, Bouachrine and Monjib are part of a larger campaign of stifling dissent. According to World Press Freedom Index in 2021, Morocco is listed 136th out of 180 countries – a ranking that epitomizes the country’s increasingly authoritarianism since it adopted reforms to appease protesters during the Arab Spring. But instead of democratizing further, the country has turned into a surveillance state.
Amnesty International puts much of the blame on NSO Group, which continued selling Pegasus to Moroccan authorities even after it learned that the kingdom was using it to commit human rights abuses. What’s more, the Israeli cyber-company launched a P.R campaign to clean its image in the same year that Moroccan journalists were spied on and arrested.
“NSO Group has serious questions to answer as to what actions it took when presented with evidence its technology was used to commit human rights violations in Morocco,” Amnesty’s Danna Ingleton said in a statement last year.
“Why did it not terminate its contract with the Moroccan authorities? Subjecting journalists and activists to intimidation through invasive digital surveillance is a violation of their rights to privacy and freedom of expression,” she added.
Moroccan authorities also need to cough up answers about the motives behind their sweeping surveillance program. Whether or not they do, the global community should send a clear message to Rabat and NSO Group that they won’t tolerate the use of mass digital surveillance to spy on journalists, rights activists and diplomats. Without united pressure and threats of consequences, the smallest window of press freedom will close in a number of countries, beginning with Morocco.