Phone numbers of freelance reporter Luc Abaki (left), L’Alternative director Ferdinand Ayité (middle), and L’Indépendant Express and L’Express International director Komlanvi Ketohou (right), all appeared on the Pegasus Project list of contacts allegedly selected for spyware surveillance. (Photo credits: Abaki, Ayité, Ketohou)

‘Permanent fear’: Togolese journalists on their lives 1 year after Pegasus Project revelations

One year after news broke about a list of over 50,000 phone numbers allegedly selected for surveillance with Pegasus spyware, journalists around the world continue to live and work with the fear that their phones can be used to track their conversations and penetrate all the personal and professional data stored on their devices.

The Pegasus Project, an investigation by Amnesty International and a consortium of media outlets coordinated by Forbidden Stories, revealed in July 2021 that at least 180 journalists were among those from over 50 countries who may have been targeted with the sophisticated surveillance software.

Three journalists from the West African country of Togo were included on the Pegasus Project list. They told CPJ at the time about how the revelations had caused “nightmarish nights” and damage to their personal as well as professional lives. Twelve months on, they say the prospect of being monitored still generates pervasive paranoia and hinders their communications with sources.

“Since I heard this news until today I can no longer easily communicate with my phone,” Ferdinand Ayité, director of L’Alternative newspaper, recently told CPJ about the implications of his phone number being listed. “There is a kind of permanent fear that forces me to change my means of communication.”

That fear is aggravated as Togolese authorities intensify their crackdown on independent press since the Pegasus Project revelations.

NSO Group, the Israeli company that sells the Pegasus spyware, has denied any connection to the Pegasus Project list and has said it only sells spyware to governments to fight terrorism and crime. However, research shows that journalists and those close to them have been targeted, along with activists and politicians, around the world.

Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto-based research group, found Togolese clergy had been selected for Pegasus surveillance in 2019. Similarly, Amnesty International reported that a Togolese human rights defender, who requested anonymity for security reasons, had been targeted with a different, Indian-made spyware in late 2019 and early 2020.

Ayité, like other journalists whose phones were reportedly listed for potential surveillance in countries ranging from Morocco to Mexico to India to Hungary, said the disclosures had affected their ability to work. “Sources treat us differently. Several people are reluctant to take our phone calls, and we are forced to proceed otherwise,” he said. “Personally, I no longer call certain sources…To this day I continue to think that my communications are always followed and listened to and this has a negative impact on the work.”

Ayité and two other journalists⁠—Komlanvi Ketohou and Luc Abaki⁠—whose contacts featured among the over 300 Togolese phone numbers on the Pegasus Project list, have not confirmed if their devices were ever infected with the spyware. But they told CPJ how the threat of surveillance shaped their broader concerns about freedom of expression in Togo. Spyware was just one of the reasons the Togolese Press Patronage (PPT), a local association of media owners, called 2021 the “darkest [year] of the democratic era in Togo in terms of press freedom.”

Days after he learned that his number had been listed, Ayité told CPJ he was not surprised and described himself as “a journalist on borrowed time.” Less than six months later, in early December 2021, police arrested Ayité and Fraternité newspaper director Joël Egah, and detained them for over 20 days on accusations of “contempt of authorities” and “propagation of falsehoods.” Ayité said authorities retained his passport until mid-June; Egah died of a heart attack in March.

In May, Ayité and his newspaper lost their appeal of a separate defamation case. The ruling they sought to reverse had ordered them each to pay 2 million West African francs (US $3,703) in damages over a June 2020 report accusing a local official of embezzlement. Ayité said he and his legal team were preparing to appeal again to Togo’s Supreme Court.

Ketohou, who also uses the first name Carlos, told CPJ that even a year after learning his number was listed, people still worried about being in contact with him.

“They have fear to speak with me,” Ketohou said. “Fear that what they say will be listened to by Togolese authorities.”

Even when people do agree to speak with him over the phone, Ketohou said they often request a video call to be able to see that it’s really him on the other end of the line. Ketohou recognized that this would not necessarily protect against spyware that can grant remote access to a phone’s microphone and camera, but people were looking for ways to build confidence in their communications with him.

Reached by phone on July 15, Togo communication minister Akodah Ayewouadan said the government had no connection with the NSO Group, “has not used that [Pegasus] spyware and we have not communicated on it.” Ayewouadan requested that he be sent questions in writing, but as of Monday, July 18, CPJ had not received any response to those written questions.

Months before learning his number was listed, Ketohou was arrested by Togolese police and detained for several days over a report published by his L’Indépendant Express newspaper alleging corruption by government ministers. That paper was barred from publishing following his release and he fled the country amid ongoing threats against him and his family, setting up the L’Express International news site in exile.

Living outside Togo, Ketohou told CPJ that he has remained worried about the transnational reach of the Togolese government. He said in recent months he had received video calls from numbers he did not know, which he refused to answer. Even without evidence to suggest the callers wished to harm him, Ketuhou said he feared they sought to confirm visually that it was his phone and to collect information about his location.

Luc Abaki, who works as a freelance reporter, told CPJ that while being listed in the Pegasus Project leak didn’t significantly change his private life, “certain people, especially close to power carefully avoid my calls, in particular telephone. This means that I no longer have access to certain information that is sometimes essential for the work that I do as a journalist.”

“I work conscientiously with the main objective of aiming for the common good,” Abaki said. “I always observe prudence.”