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‘The most vicious interference’: Azerbaijani journalists react to Pegasus revelations

22 July 2021
Illustration: Dato Parulava/OC Media.

Dozens of journalists, lawyers, political activists, and human rights activists' mobile phones appear to have been hacked by the Azerbaijani government which used Pegasus spyware to do it.

‘The social media accounts of other journalists and politicians were hacked, but the attempts on my account were in vain’, Islam Shikhali, a journalist with Radio Liberty Azerbaijan, told OC Media. ‘But the results of the current investigation show that the surveillance, the hacking and the most vicious interference in fundamental human freedoms have taken place so far.’

 On 18 July, a consortium of journalistic outlets including OCCRP, The Guardian, and The Washington Post, published a series of exposés into the Pegasus — invasive malware that allowed one to see all the contents (photos, videos, messages, etc.) of a target. Pegasus was developed by the NSO Group, an Israeli cyber-surveillance company, and sold all around the world. 

According to the investigation, over 50,000 people's phones were compromised in 10 countries, including Bahrain, India, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Togo, the United Arab Emirates, and Azerbaijan.

Over 1,000 Azerbaijani phone numbers were targeted, and 245 were identified, they included opposition activists, politicians, journalists, and their relatives. 

Journalists in Azerbaijan, already used to widespread state surveillance, were nevertheless shocked by the revelations.  

‘A journalist investigating the Pegasus program sent me a letter via WhatsApp. After reading the letter, I froze for a moment’, Aytan Farhadova, an Azerbaijani investigative journalist based in Georgia whose mobile number was on the list of targeted phones, told OC Media. Though she said she believes she was previously a victim of surveillance the scale of this made it a ‘disaster’. 

‘The detailed information said that this process was no longer like ordinary surveillance, all my personal information was in someone else’s hands’, she said. 

Imran Aliyev, an Azerbaijan-based security specialist, told OC Media that Pegasus is not likely to be a unique program. ‘Such a dangerous virus [program] is not the first and probably will not be the last’, he said, adding that ‘the myth that iOS or Android is safe has disappeared’.

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