By CPJ MENA Staff
Last July, when the Pegasus Project investigation revealed that imprisoned Moroccan journalist Soulaiman Raissouni was selected for surveillance by Israeli-made Pegasus spyware, the journalist could only laugh.
“I was so sure,” his wife Kholoud Mokhtari said Raissouni told her from prison.
Raissouni is one of seven local journalists named by the Pegasus Project – an investigative consortium of media organizations – as a potential or confirmed target of Pegasus spyware. The news only validated what Moroccan’s journalist community had long suspected: that the state’s vast intelligence apparatus has been monitoring some journalists’ every move.
Moroccan journalists were among the first worldwide to complain of the use of spyware against reporters, pointing to digital surveillance as early as 2015. In 2019 and 2020, Amnesty International announced the findings of forensic analyses confirming that Pegasus had been used on the phone of at least two Moroccan journalists, Omar Radi and Maati Monjib. Subsequent state action against some of the surveilled journalists underscored the ongoing threat to Morocco’s independent media – and reinforced CPJ’s conclusion that spyware attacks often are precursors to other press freedom violations.
Both Raissouni and Radi are imprisoned in Morocco for what family and colleagues describe as trumped up sex crimes charges. Taoufik Bouachrine, another journalist whom the Pegasus Project said was targeted with the spyware, is imprisoned on similar charges.
The Pegasus Project was unable to analyze the phones of all of those named as surveillance targets to confirm the infection and the Moroccan government has repeatedly denied ever using Pegasus. However, many of the three journalists’ private pictures, videos, texts, and phone calls, as well as those belonging to family members, were published in pro-government newspapers and sites like Chouf TV, Barlamane.com, Telexpresse, and then later used as evidence against the journalists in court.
Bouachrine, former editor-in-chief of local independent newspaper Akhbar al-Youm, was arrested in February 2018, and is serving a 15-year prison sentence on numerous sexual assault and human trafficking charges. His wife, Asmae Moussaoui, told CPJ in a phone call in May 2022 that she believes she was surveilled, too.
In April 2019, Moussaoui said she called a private Washington, D.C.-based communications firm to help her run ads in U.S. newspapers about Bouachrine’s case, hoping that the publicity might aid efforts to free her husband. The next day, Barlamane published a story alleging that Moussaoui paid tens of thousands of euros to the firm, using money the journalist allegedly earned through human trafficking activities. Human Rights Watch describes Barlamane as being “closely tied with security services.”
Suspecting she was being monitored, Moussaoui turned to one of her husband’s lawyers, who suggested the pair “pull a prank” that would help them detect whether authorities were indeed spying on her. The lawyer “called me and proposed that we speak with Taoufik’s alleged victims to reconcile, which we did not really intend to do. The next day, tabloids published an article saying that our family is planning to bribe each victim with two million dirhams [about $182,000] so they drop the case. I became very sure [of the surveillance] then,” Moussaoui told CPJ.
Moroccan journalist and press freedom advocate Maati Monjib, co-founder of the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism (AMJI), had a similar experience. Monjib was arrested in December 2020 and sentenced to a year in prison the following month after he was convicted of endangering state security and money laundering fraud. The latter charge stems from AMJI’s work helping investigative journalists apply for grants, Monjib told CPJ in a phone call.
“During one of our meetings at AMJI in 2015, I mentioned that we need to look for grants to support more journalists. The next day, one of the tabloids published a story claiming that Maati Monjib is giving 5,000 euros [$4,850] to every journalist who criticizes the general director of the national security. This is a proof that they were listening to our meeting,” said Monjib.
The revelations have forced journalists and their family members to take precautions against surveillance – no easy task given the difficulty of detecting spyware infection without forensic help. “[Raissouni] told me to try to be safe, so I am trying my best,” Mokhtari, Raissouni’s wife, told CPJ.
“Other than the usual precautions I take to protect my phone, I regularly update it and I never keep any personal pictures or important messages or emails on it,” she said. “I also buy a new phone every three months and destroy the old one, which has taken a financial toll on my family. But honestly you can’t escape it. The most tech-savvy person I know is our friend Omar Radi. He took all the necessary precautions against hacking, and they still managed to infect his devices.”
Monjib brings his devices to tech experts almost daily to check for bugs and to clean them, he told CPJ, adding that he also never answers phone calls, only uses the encrypted Signal messaging app, and always speaks in code.
Aboubakr Jamai, a prominent Moroccan journalist and a 2003 CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner, was selected for surveillance with Pegasus in 2018 and 2019 — and confirmed as a target in 2019 — even though he has been living in France since 2007, according to the Pegasus Project. He believes that the Moroccan government is to blame for the spyware attacks, and that the surveillance has effectively ensured the end of independent journalism in the country, he told CPJ in a phone call.
“For years now, there haven’t been any independent media or journalism associations,” said Jamai. What’s left now is a handful of individuals who have strong voices and choose to echo it using some news websites, but mainly social media platforms.”
CPJ emailed the Moroccan Ministry of Interior in September for comment but did not receive any response.
Still, Jamai – who gave no credence to the government’s earlier denials of Pegasus use – did see one positive result from the spyware disclosures. “It publicly exposed Morocco’s desperation and the extent to which it is willing to go to silence journalists,” he said. “Now the whole world knows that the Moroccan state is using Pegasus to spy on journalists.”