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Ethiopia Intensifies Digital Attacks on Journalists

Internet café in Lalibela, Amhara Region, Ethiopia.

Internet café in Lalibela, Amhara Region, Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian government has renewed efforts to silence independent voices abroad by using apparent foreign spyware, Human Rights Watch said Monday.

It suggests the Ethiopian authorities should immediately cease digital attacks on journalists, while foreign surveillance technology sellers should investigate alleged abuses linked to their products.

According to Human Rights Watch, independent researchers at the Toronto-based research center Citizen Lab on Monday reported new attempts by Ethiopia to hack into computers and accounts of Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) employees based in the United States.

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The attacks bear similarities to earlier attempts to target Ethiopian journalists outside Ethiopia dating back to December 2013. ESAT is an independent, diaspora-run television and radio station.

“Ethiopia’s government has over the past year intensified its assault on media freedom by systematically trying to silence journalists,” said Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These digital attacks threaten journalists’ ability to protect the safety of their sources and to avoid retaliation.”

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The government has repressed independent media in Ethiopia ahead of the general elections scheduled for May, Human Rights Watch said. Many privately owned print publications heavily self-censor coverage of politically sensitive issues or have shut down.

In the last year, at least 22 journalists, bloggers, and publishers have been criminally charged, at least six publications have closed amid a campaign of harassment, and many journalists have fled the country, according to Human Rights Watch.

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Many Ethiopians turn to ESAT and other foreign stations to obtain news and analysis that is independent of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.

However, intrusive surveillance of these news organizations undermines their ability to protect sources and further restricts the media environment ahead of the elections.

Government authorities have repeatedly intimidated, harassed, and arbitrarily detained sources providing information to ESAT and other foreign stations, says Human Rights Watch.

Citizen Lab’s analysis suggests the attacks were carried out with spyware called Remote Control System (RCS) sold by the Italian firm Hacking Team, which sells surveillance and hacking technology.

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This spyware was allegedly used in previous attempts to infect computers of ESAT employees in December 2013. If successfully installed on a target’s computer, the spyware would allow a government controlling the software access to activity on a computer or phone, including email, files, passwords typed into the device, contact lists, and audio and video from the device’s microphone and camera.

Citizen Lab also found that the spyware used in the attacks against ESAT appeared to have been updated as recently as December 2014.

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On November 19, a security researcher, Claudio Guarnieri, along with several nongovernmental organizations, publicly released a tool called Detekt, which can be used to scan computers for Hacking Team RCS and other spyware.

Citizen Lab’s testing determined that Detekt was able to successfully recognize the version of RCS used in a November attack, but not the version used in a December attack. Citizen Lab concluded that this may indicate that the software had been updated sometime between the two attempts.

These new findings, if accurate, raise serious concerns that Hacking Team has not addressed evidence of abuse of its product by the Ethiopian government and may be continuing to facilitate that abuse through updates or other support, Human Rights Watch said.

Photo courtesy: Human Rights Watch, 2010 Hemis.fr/AFP Photo

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