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Concerns remain over government use of spyware

media, newspapers, journalism, journalists, news

Cyprus was on Tuesday named among the EU member states where concerns remain over government use of spyware against journalists by a Council of Europe report.

The findings are part of the annual assessment of press freedom in Europe by the partner organisations of the Safety of Journalists Platform.

The assessment, describing the state of play for press freedoms across the EU, concerns the year 2023.

Regarding the use of Pegasus and equivalent surveillance spyware (Pega), the report recalls that the findings of the Committee of Inquiry – adopted by the European Parliament on June 15, 2023 – made targeted recommendations for a number of countries, including Cyprus, Hungary, Poland, Greece and Spain.

MEPs said spyware “should only be used in member states where allegations of spyware abuse have been thoroughly investigated, where national legislation is in line with the recommendations of the Venice Commission and case-law of the Court of Justice of the EU, and where export control rules have been enforced”.

In its priority recommendations under the ‘surveillance’ subheading, the Council of Europe recommends that “member states should impose, without delay, a moratorium on the export, sale, transfer, and use of highly intrusive spyware tools such as Pegasus, and establish clearer, stronger regulatory frameworks for the use of modern surveillance technology.”

Also, “Council of Europe member states must refrain from the unlawful deployment of spyware against journalists and comply with their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights to ensure the legality, necessity, and proportionality of each instance of deployment.”

The report further calls on judicial authorities to “fully investigate all alleged spyware abuse, and governments should establish rigorous procedures to order the examination, use and storage of any obtained information”.

Cyprus gets another mention in the report, on the issue of the decriminalisation of defamation laws. The island is among four EU member states – along with Bulgaria, Lithuania and Serbia – which have implemented partial decriminalisation.

The Council of Europe expresses concern over the use of Slapps (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), calling these a major impediment to journalists investigating corruption, conflicts of interest and financial crimes.

Most of the lawsuits are based on alleged defamation or damage to reputation and their impact is aggravated by the fact that in many countries, defamation is still at least nominally a criminal offence,” the dossier notes.

In its executive summary, the report states: “Press freedom was again a canary in the coal mine for Europe in 2023. Although the year registered a decrease in the number of killings of journalists and in violence against the press in street protests, the alerts published on the Safety of Journalists Platform show a growing diversity of threats, pressures and constraints under which journalists must carry out their mission.”

 

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