Azerbaijani journalist targeted with Pegasus spyware ‘ready to take fight to European courts’

Azerbaijani journalist targeted with Pegasus spyware ‘ready to take fight to European courts’
Screengrab from briefing on Pegasus spyware given in Guardian video.
By bne IntelIiNews July 19, 2021

An Azerbaijani journalist has said she is prepared to go all the way to the European courts to pursue a complaint over how she became one of hundreds of journalists and activists around the world that appear to have been spied on with Pegasus spyware deployed by governments.

The name of Sevinj Vaqifqizi, an Azerbaijani journalist working for Meydan TV, an independent news organisation based in Berlin, came up during “The Pegasus Project” investigation mounted by 17 media organizations and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). The investigation’s conclusions were released late on July 18. The probe drew links between the Israeli-based NSO Group, accused of the supplying Pegasus spyware to governments, and a leaked database of up to 50,000 phone numbers believed to have been identified as people of interest by clients of the company since 2016.

Vaqifqizi’s phone number was found to have been infected with the Pegasus software. She told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service via Skype that a forensic analysis of her phone showed it had been tapped since 2019.

"We will file a complaint with the courts. We will demand an investigation from the prosecutor's office. And if this case is not investigated in Azerbaijan, and there is no decision on this issue, we will bring the case to European courts," she said.

The OCCRP—a consortium of investigative centres, media, and journalists operating in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Central America—said Azerbaijan appears to have acquired Pegasus to spy on hundreds of local activists and journalists, including RFE/RL reporters.

Elsad Hajiyev, head of the media and public relations department of Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry, responed to RFE/RL that the report released by the OCCRP was "nonsense," calling it a "baseless fabrication of some individuals",

“Weapon of choice”

Agnes Callamard, secretary-general of London-based Amnesty International, which was involved in the investigatory project, said the investigation "lays bare how NSO's spyware is a weapon of choice for repressive governments seeking to silence journalists, attack activists and crush dissent, placing countless lives in peril".

The secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, said the revelations about the use of the Pegasus spyware "inspire disgust and a feeling of revolt given the extent of the surveillance and the targeting of journalists."

There is "no definitive proof" that Baku is an NSO client or that the leaked numbers represent people selected for targeting, but "a preponderance of evidence suggests that this is the case", the OCCRP said.

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in a statement on July 19: "RFE/RL strongly condemns this cowardly invasion of the privacy of working journalists. We have long highlighted the abusive practices of the Azerbaijani government against our Azerbaijani Service, Radio Azadliq. We call on the Azerbaijani government to stop blocking our website, halt its surveillance of our staff, and to cease its harassment of our former bureau chief Khadija Ismayilova."

The NSO Group clients included the governments of EU member Hungary, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and the United Arab Emirates, the OCCRP concluded.