In a mid-2020 Washington Post opinion piece, Lebanese Al-Jazeera broadcast journalist Ghada Oueiss described hackers stealing private photos and videos from her phone and posting them online. The leak resulted in a sharp escalation of online attacks, Oueiss told CPJ in a January 2021 call. Since the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, she said she fears that the online attacks may foreshadow a physical one.
Oueiss, who anchors political programs covering current affairs, told CPJ she has used social media for years, but began actively tweeting in 2018 to counter abuse about her on-screen work. To CPJ’s concern at the time, Al-Jazeera was singled out for being funded by Qatar during the prolonged diplomatic blockade of the Gulf state by some of its neighbors, notably allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Accounts that harassed Oueiss often had profile pictures or handles suggestive of a connection to Saudi Arabia or the UAE, she said – a pattern that continued when her private images were distributed last year.
In December 2020, Oueiss filed a lawsuit in a court in Florida accusing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, and co-conspirators including UAE-based cybersecurity firm DarkMatter and some American social media account holders, of involvement in the hack-and-leak. (Approached by the Financial Times, one of the Americans denied participating, saying “How did I get hacked photos, and how do I work (for the) Saudi government?”)
The suit also describes a suspicious process “associated with NSO Group’s Pegasus malware” on her iPhone. Israel-based NSO says it markets products only to government agencies for law enforcement purposes, but as CPJ has noted before, researchers have documented advanced Pegasus spyware being used to target journalists, possibly including Khashoggi himself.
CPJ emailed the Saudi Ministry of Media, the Saudi Center for International Communications, and the Emirati Embassy to the U.S. in Washington, D.C. for comment in February, but did not receive a response. CPJ emailed the NSO Group and messaged DarkMatter via a Twitter account listed on their website in February for comment, but the requests were not acknowledged before publication. CPJ has documented NSO’s response to allegations of abuse in the past, which say that the company investigates credible evidence of its products being misused. DarkMatter has previously denied involvement in state-backed hacking efforts, according to Reuters.
Speaking with CPJ, Oueiss declined to discuss technical details of her allegations, citing the lawsuit. But she described the psychological effects of social media attacks, and the fact that reporting as a woman and a Christian makes her uniquely vulnerable.The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You’ve said that you have been targeted by trolls and harassed before. How long has that been going on for?
After the blockade, [trolls] started attacking everyone from Al-Jazeera. I had a Twitter account, but I wasn’t really using it – I was looking at what [former U.S. President Donald] Trump tweeted. Then I realized that Saudi bots [automated accounts] were talking about me and tweeting under my name using [an account with] a falsified verification symbol. [Editor’s note: Twitter applies badges to accounts of public interest the company has assessed as authentic.] I started to tweet so I could tell people it wasn’t me. I was [also] speaking about Khashoggi.
Being attacked online could translate into a physical attack. Jamal didn’t tell the world he was being attacked by bots and trolls. One month before his murder, [he] sent me a message saying, “Ignore them, block them.” I said, “No, I want to show the world this is going on.” This was my way of showing that these dictatorships were using social media platforms to silence journalists.
It’s vicious and humiliating. They say that when you read something bad about [yourself], it’s like someone burned you with hot coffee, the same part of your brain reacts. Online humiliation became a kind of torture.
How did you know that your phone had been compromised?
At the beginning of 2020, I started reading private stories about me on Twitter – saying I had an apartment in Beirut, my brother’s name. I don’t post anything about my family.
I [thought] something was fishy, that someone was spying on me. But I never imagined they would use spyware that would cost millions of dollars just to spy on my phone. I didn’t imagine they would try this character assassination, saying that [I’m not] a journalist, I’m a prostitute.
In April, an unknown account on Twitter started tweeting photos [of me]. There was one with my colleagues, I asked [them], “Did you send this to anyone?” They said no. It was taken in a private place. I told Al-Jazeera security that my phones might be compromised.
Then in June, [there was] a second picture of me in my swimsuit in front of my building. It wasn’t even a picture, it was [a screenshot from] a video my husband took [on] a new phone. Less than 20 hours [later] there were [thousands of copies of the image] all over the internet.
How has this experience impacted your reporting, and your life in general?
I tried to put on a brave face, but I was terrified. I thought of leaving the profession, I told my husband, “Let’s open a flower shop.”
I was afraid for my life. I saw what happened to Jamal. I kept looking at the direct messages [he sent me]and thinking, “Will I be able to go back home, to travel? Will they kill my family, kidnap me?” In the end, I felt I needed professional help. When I collected evidence with the help of my lawyers and we filed the lawsuit, it helped me to maintain my mental health.
Each time [I went to work] I was telling myself, “Go on screen and prove them wrong.” I asked myself, “Do you really want them to win?” That is not what I want – I want justice. Not only for me, but for others who are being attacked, online or physically, or even like my colleague Mahmoud Hussein, imprisoned for no reason. And Loujain al-Hathloul, she refused to give up. I really admire her courage and it made me want to fight back.
[Editor’s note: Egyptian authorities arrested Mahmoud Hussein Gomaa in December 2016, according to CPJ research; on February 2, 2021, Al-Jazeera reported he had been released. Saudi human rights activist al-Hathloul was detained in 2018 as part of a broader crackdown on the women’s rights movement, and released on probation on February 10, according to the BBC.]
How did being a female journalist affect you being targeted? Do you see female journalists being targeted more?
[Throughout the] Middle East, you have this misogynistic mood against women, especially outspoken journalists. If I address a guest [who supports bin Salman] on air, they are more offended because I am a woman, [criticism] is more humiliating.
I’m attacked from three angles: I’m a woman, I’m a journalist, I’m a Christian. And even for my age, because I’m over 40! The accounts have pictures of [bin Salman] or his father, or the Saudi flag. There were some verified accounts tweeting. You can tell that it’s not a coincidence, it’s organized.
How should the US, the international community, and other allied nations respond to the UAE and Saudi Arabia?
I need the American people and the American leadership to know that we are here, and we are suffering. It’s not easy to be a journalist in this part of the world and part of the reason that we’re being attacked is because the U.S. has [been supporting bin Salman]. Now [U.S. President Joe] Biden has said that he will freeze arms sales to UAE and Saudi Arabia. [Editor’s note: In late January, the Biden administration paused U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and said it was reviewing sales to the UAE, according to The Wall Street Journal.]
I also want to talk about the responsibility of the social media platforms toward us. How come Twitter and Facebook are not doing enough to protect us from this harassment? People have the right to freedom of speech, but not to interfere in my personal life or threaten me. Why do [platforms] have the courage to [block] Trump, but not Saudi bots and trolls?