Archive | 10:14 pm

Syria must release U.S. journalist believed in state custody

30 Aug

New York, August 30, 2012–Syrian authorities must immediately release U.S. freelance journalist Austin Tice believed to be in government custody, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. 

“There is a strong indication that the Syrian government is holding Austin Tice,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Damascus should acknowledge his captivity and release Tice immediately.  All sides fighting in Syria must ensure the safety of media personnel and respect their internationally recognized status as civilians.”

In an interview with Czech television on Tuesday, the Czech Republic’s ambassador to Syria who also represents U.S. interests there, said that according to embassy sources, Tice “is alive and that he was detained by government forces in the outskirts of Damascus, where the rebels were fighting government troops.” The freelance photojournalist who contributed to The Washington Post, McClatchy, Al-Jazeera English and several other news outlets was unaccounted for in mid-August. Two other journalists working for the U.S. government-funded Al-Hurra television broadcaster went missing on August 20. At least 19 journalists have been killed covering the Syrian conflict since November, including one killed just over the border in Lebanon, making Syria the most dangerous place in the world for journalists, according to CPJ research

from Committee to Protect Journalists

CPJ Internet Channel: Dear CPJ: Some malware from your ‘friend’

30 Aug

We talk a lot about hacking attacks against individual journalists here, but what typifies an attempt to access a reporter’s computer? Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director, received an email last week that reflects some characteristics of a malware attack against a journalist or activist. There was nothing particularly notable about the targeting. (Like many reporters, CPJ receives such attempts occasionally). The attack failed at the first fence, and my casual investigation into the source was inconclusive. There are no shocking answers or big headlines to draw from this attack. But it does illustrate a contemporary reality: Opportunistic assailants regularly shower journalists with software attacks.

The email was marked as being from “Rony Kevin,” a misspelling of Rony Koven, who works with the World Press Freedom Committee, a partner press freedom organization. The originating Yahoo account wasn’t his, of course; the attackers had no connection with Koven at all.

The subject of the mail was “Fw: Journalists arrested in Gambia,” and the content of the mail was boilerplate text about reporters who had been recently imprisoned, followed by “Please review the attachments for more information.” The text was actually copied and pasted from this Article 19 alert. The text promised more information in an attached ZIP file, called “Details,” which it said was password encoded with the letters “CPJ.”

CPJ staffers are, as you might imagine, extremely cautious about opening strange attachments, but, after the mail had been quarantined, and in a suitably safe computing environment, I took a closer look at the attachments’ contents. Out of the five documents in the file, one was a text copy of the Article 19 article, three were accompanying pictures of the Gambian journalists–and one file was a Windows program, disguised as an image, which would have starting running if anyone clicked on it. (It would probably have also triggered several dozen anti-virus Klaxxon warnings, but some people don’t use anti-virus software or ignore it.)

Taking a closer look at that executable with some simple analysis tools, it was clear that the real job of the program was to unpack a piece of malware, stick it somewhere innocuous on the computer, and set it up to run automatically in the future. The unpacking code was a standard utility, with some comments in Chinese. At this point, I handed the file over to security researcher Morgan Marquis-Boire to see what he could make of it. Morgan let me know that the file was indeed malware and, when started, began communicating with a machine in Indonesia. I’ve mailed the administrators of that machine, but as usual, they did not reply. For now, the trail has run cold.

What can we learn from this attack? The fake identity of the email’s source and the content about Gambian journalists suggest that somebody had dedicated some time to understanding CPJ, its interests, and its network of partners. This is all evidence of “spear-phishing”–a person or group targeting a particular individual or organization, rather than the usual fraudsters and spammers attempting to exploit hundreds or thousands of generic Internet users. Whoever sent this wanted access to CPJ’s computers in particular, and was willing to spend at least some resources obtaining information that would make their emails convincing to us, and perhaps other international press freedom groups like the World Press Freedom Committee and Article 19.

The encryption of the Zip file was a smart way to get past the simplest anti-virus software. Anti-virus software that runs automatically wouldn’t know the password so it would not be able to automatically unzip the attachment and look inside for trouble. The personalized password also helps make the email seem more genuine.

The Chinese language in the executable means that this malware has come from a toolkit that used Chinese elements. There are plenty of Russian and Chinese tools floating around the international computer underground, however. You might not need to speak Chinese to use a piece of software with Chinese comments embedded within it, so I don’t think you can draw many conclusions from that.

Neither can you draw much from the use of an Indonesian command-and-control center. Just because the first stop for information sent from the infected computer is Jakarta, that doesn’t mean that it’s the final destination. That machine is undoubtedly an innocent system, taken over remotely by the attackers, and used as a convenient middleman for their activities.

So we don’t have much information about the specific identity of the hackers. We do know, however, that they exist: This isn’t an attacker who particularly cares to cover his tracks and doesn’t mind too much if the attack fails.

The software is generic, and could have been obtained by anyone interested in conducting an attack. There’s nothing that shouts state actors here, except perhaps for the target. There aren’t many other reasons to spend time specifically targeting press freedom groups, unless you are able to sell control of their computers to a third party who cares to disrupt or monitor their activities.

Who are those third parties? Whoever they are, their tactics are illegal in most countries. And their long-term targets are surely not NGOs like ours, but the journalists the countries that we seek to defend.

from Committee to Protect Journalists

Bolivia charges news outlets with inciting racism

30 Aug

Police block journalists protesting the government's plans to sue three news outlets. (Reuters/Gaston Brito)

Bogotá, August 30, 2012–Bolivian authorities must immediately drop a criminal complaint filed against three media outlets in connection with their coverage of a speech by President Evo Morales, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The news outlets are being accused of inciting racism and discrimination, according to news reports.

The government filed charges on August 21 against local dailies El Diario and Página Siete, and Agencia de Noticias Fides (ANF), Bolivia’s oldest news agency, all based in the city of La Paz, according to news reports. Authorities claimed the outlets’ coverage distorted the president’s words and sought to create a confrontation between the eastern and western parts of the country, news reports said.

In his August 15 speech, Morales discussed food security in Tiahuanacao, a town in the plateau of the Andes called the altiplano. The president said: “In the east of Bolivia, where there is production all year round, I would say that it is only a lack of will that makes us be poor or not have food. In the altiplano, it’s different. If there is frost, if there is no rain or if there is hail, then there is no food. But in the east, we only go hungry because of laziness.”

The president’s remarks sparked protests in Santa Cruz, the largest city in eastern Bolivia, according to news reports. Eastern Bolivia is a wealthier area of the country and a bastion of the political opposition, while the altiplano is made up of mostly indigenous people who strongly support Morales.

The speech was covered by ANF, fragments of which were reprinted in El Diario and Página Siete, which ran the headline: “Evo accuses people in the east of being lazy.”

“It is outrageous that the Bolivian government is pressing criminal charges against El Diario, Página Siete, and ANF for merely reporting on comments made by the president,” CPJ Senior Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría said from New York. “The press should not be blamed for a controversy initiated by the president himself. The use of racism charges against the press may result in a chilling effect that will stifle debate on critical issues.”

Javier Baldiviezo, vice minister for governmental coordination, told reporters that ANF’s coverage was distorted and that in turn led to inaccurate headlines in the two newspapers. Baldiviezo also said the alleged crimes were offenses against public order and thus fell under Article 281 of the country’s criminal code, according to news reports.

Raúl Peñaranda, editor of Página Siete, told CPJ that the specified articles invoked by the government had been added to the criminal code as part of the 2010 Law Against Racism and All Other Forms of Discrimination, which aims to prevent and punish acts of racism and discrimination, but whose vague language concerned journalists and CPJ, who feared it would be used to restrict and punish journalism. Peñaranda told CPJ that this is the first time the law has been used against the media.

Peñaranda told CPJ that Página Siete had accurately reported on Morales’s remarks. “This is a lawsuit that makes no sense, and is only designed to intimidate independent media and limit freedom of expression in the country,” Peñaranda said. He also told CPJ that media offenses were supposed to be tried under the country’s rarely used Press Law, which is part of the country’s civil code.

On Thursday, members of the media in La Paz and the nearby city of El Alto clashed with police during a march to protest the government’s decision to target ANF and the two newspapers with criminal charges, according to news reports.

  • For more data and analysis on Bolivia, visit CPJ’s Bolivia page here.

from Committee to Protect Journalists

Guinean government censors private radio station

30 Aug

Lagos, Nigeria, August 30, 2012–Authorities in Guinea closed a private radio station on Sunday, preventing the outlet from reporting on the next day’s protests, according to news reports. Liberté FM has been targeted in the past, the reports said.

Authorities in Guinea’s southeastern N’Zérékoré forested region summarily shut Liberté FM in the evening without providing an explanation to the station’s staff, according to news reports. Local journalists told CPJ they believed the station had been closed to prevent it from broadcasting protests in Conakry, the capital, news reports said. Opposition leaders had called for protests on Monday to demand free and transparent parliamentary elections, which have been repeatedly postponed since 2010, the reports said. The journalists also said the outlet had been targeted because it had allowed opposition leaders to call for protests over the August 3 massacre by security forces of villagers in the Zogota district in the N’Zérékoré region.

The station was unable to broadcast live coverage of the protests, news reports said. It was allowed to resume broadcasting on Monday afternoon only after rights groups, press unions, and opposition leaders condemned the closure publicly, according to news reports.

Liberté FM’s director, Alpha Saliou Diallo, told CPJ that the regional governor, Lance Condé (no relation to the president), had told him that the station had been shut down on the orders of the “highest authorities” in Conakry, the capital. But presidential spokesman Mohamed Lamin Soumah told CPJ that the decision to close Liberté FM had been made by the regional governor as a result of the station’s coverage of the killings in Zogota. Soumah called the governor’s decision an “abuse of authority,” and said that it had prompted the government to reverse the order, news reports said.

Liberté FM has been targeted in the past. Diallo told CPJ that police had shut the outlet in 2010 during a live broadcast and detained two journalists for criticizing President Alpha Condé. In early 2007, military officers vandalized the station’s offices in Conakry and arrested several journalists, news reports said.

“By censoring news outlets like Liberté FM and intimidating journalists, Guinean authorities continue to undercut democracy,” said CPJ Africa Advocacy Mohamed Keita from New York. “President Alpha Condé’s government should stop this trend and allow the press to do its job.”

Several journalists were harassed and their vehicle damaged during Monday’s protests in Conakry, local journalists told CPJ. Abdourahamane Diallo, a journalist for the local Espace FM, reported that the attacks occurred in the presence of police officers, who did nothing to help the journalists.

Soumah told CPJ that opposition supporters had attacked the journalists. “It was opposition militants who attacked the journalists because they were unhappy that security blocked the demonstration.”

  • For more data and analysis on Guinea, visit CPJ’s Guinea page here.

from Committee to Protect Journalists

Blog: Attacks on press in Venezuela expand online

30 Aug

Online penetration in Venezuela has increased in recent years, with 40 percent of its population online, according to the International Telecommunication Union. A significant amount of activity takes place on Twitter, where Venezuela has the highest penetration in the region after Uruguay, according to local research company Tendencias Digitales. President Hugo Chávez Frías, who has more than three million followers on Twitter, uses the platform regularly to convey official news–as he did on Tuesday when a raging fire at an oil refinery was extinguished, leaving 48 people dead, according to a report on EFE.

In June, a 19-year-old who happened to become Chávez’s three millionth follower was rewarded with a new home. The Bolivarian leader has reportedly hired a staff of 200 to handle his burgeoning account–second only to United States President Barack Obama among world leaders. It’s no wonder, then, that Venezuelan politics have heated up on social media, with both Chávez and his opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, waging a serious digital campaign in the lead-up to the country’s October 7 presidential elections.

Venezuelans have increasingly taken to the Internet to pass on information that the government seeks to obscure, such as power outages and oil spills, CPJ found in a newly released special report. It is no surprise, then, that abuses of press freedom in the country–perpetuated by a government that has imposed restrictive legislation, public harassment of critical journalists, and a vast state media empire–have now extended to include online attacks. The result: censorship on issues that affect the daily lives of Venezuelans, including rampant violence, water contamination, and an ongoing prison crisis that recently left 25 dead in a riot.

As the presidential contenders wage an electoral battle online, the accounts of critical journalists are being hacked and used to promote pro-government messages. A group that calls itself N33, which claims it was formed to wage cyber-attacks against Chávez’s critics, has taken credit for some of the online targeting of journalists. At least 30 online attacks against journalists occurred in 2011, and although hacking is illegal in the country, CPJ research shows there have been no convictions.

This trend of aggression and intimidation on one of the last platforms considered free and accessible opens a new front of vulnerability for the press and for Venezuelan citizens. Regardless of who emerges the victor of these elections, reversing a decade of media repression and fostering an open and tolerant environment will be the key challenge for the administration.

from Committee to Protect Journalists

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