An investigative journalist from Yemen never anticipated that a series of events in late 2021 would still haunt him to this day. For his safety, we will refer to the journalist as Wissam.
In a candid and chilling conversation with SMEX, Wissam revealed the harrowing details of a cyberattack that turned his life upside down. He recounted, “In December 2021, I traveled to Saada governorate with a permit to conduct an investigation on the use of internationally prohibited weapons by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the city. Accompanied by an intelligence officer, the journey took an unexpected turn.
During our travels, the officer demanded money from us—an extortion we rejected. Seeing that we were unwilling to yield, he retaliated with betrayal. He lodged a complaint with the Security and Intelligence Department, falsely claiming that we were working for an Israeli news channel. The reality was that we were working for the German Deutsche Welle radio station.”
Following the incident, Wissam and his team faced further complications. Their personal phones suddenly stopped working, leaving them unable to make or receive calls. Reacting swiftly, they turned off their devices and resorted to using their driver’s spare phone.
A source within the intelligence community in Sanaa warned them that they need to take immediate action. Special forces were en route to apprehend them inside their hotel. They were advised to leave Saada without further delay.
Since that day in December 2021, Wissam has been under relentless hacking attempts targeting his phone—almost every three months. He described to SMEX the unsettling experience of losing control over his device and the inexplicable drain on its battery, even when not in use. The relentless assault on his privacy and security has forced Wissam into a state of constant vigilance.
Fearful of potential arrest and persecution, the Yemeni journalist has been forced to change residences more than six times within one year. In August 2022, as he commenced a new investigation, both his phone and computer were hacked. Confirming his suspicions, a contact at the National Telecommunications Company revealed that all his communications were under relentless surveillance. This invasive scrutiny extended beyond Wissam himself, ensnaring the phones of his family members, including his mother, grandfather, and younger brother. The situation became most alarming when a group of agents raided his home and intimidated his mother.
Wissam’s narrative represents just one among numerous incidents that have become all too common for Yemeni journalists since the outbreak of the ongoing conflict between the Houthi group and the Saudi-led coalition.
The increasing frequency of cyberattacks against Yemeni journalists highlights the urgent need for thorough documentation and investigation into these incidents. According to Fahmy Al-Baheth, a Yemeni expert in digital rights and safety, these attacks have become more prevalent since April 14, 2022, which coincided with a conference he was attending in Riyadh, where journalists, politicians, and activists convened.
A journalist told Al-Baheth about a suspicious incident. He had gotten a call from a person who identified himself as a representative from the Saudi Program for the Development and Reconstruction of Yemen. The caller expressed the program’s interest in collaborating with the journalist to benefit from his expertise and insights. Strangely, the “representative” asked him to download an application designed for Android to initiate this collaboration. It remains unclear whether the caller was an imposter or a genuine representative of the Saudi program.
“The journalist downloaded the application on a phone that did not belong to him, and we subjected it to a comprehensive analysis, revealing its ability to access all stored data on the device,” Al Baheth revealed to SMEX. “As our investigation progressed, we decided to broaden its scope, leading us to the discovery of other applications built in a similar manner, with identical permissions. Interestingly, all of these applications had an IP address pointing to Yemen.”
Following a thorough period of analysis and investigation, a research report by the “Insikt Group” unveiled that a spying group named “OilAlpha” is responsible for these attacks. Their targets encompass various entities, primarily politicians, media outlets, journalists, and organizations operating in the Arabian Peninsula. While the group is likely based in Yemen, its political affiliation remains unknown.
This incident is not the sole documentation highlighting the perilous cyber reality faced by journalists in the country. In the first half of 2022, the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate documented 11 cases of assault against journalists and media outlets, nine cases of arrests, and six cases of prosecution and summonses. Among these violations, the “legitimate government” forces were responsible for 23, while the Houthis were accountable for 16.
Digital and Social Violence Against Female Journalists
The escalation of the Yemen conflict that erupted in September 2014 has resulted in a significant rise in digital attacks targeting journalists. Yemeni journalist Afrah Nasser, speaking to SMEX, highlights the impact of the ongoing war on Yemen and the involvement of multiple conflicting parties. Each side strives to hone its use of various weapons, including cyber tools.
“I constantly face hacking attempts through emails, often disguised as advertisements. However, I have learned to discern between fake and genuine messages,” she said. “On some occasions, I receive messages claiming that I’d won shopping vouchers from stores in Saudi Arabia or hotels in the UAE, referencing my alleged visits to these places. In reality, I have never been to these locations nor have any knowledge about them.”
“The situation has become so distressing that I missed several significant opportunities, invitations to important conferences, and crucial meetings. This is because I stopped clicking on invitation links in fear of falling for phishing attempts or becoming a victim of account theft and data breaches,” Afrah told SMEX.
Yemeni journalists, enduring harsh living conditions exacerbated by the ongoing war, often lack experience in the field of cybersecurity, leaving them vulnerable to cyberattacks, Nasser pointed out.
This vulnerability is particularly pronounced among female journalists, who face additional challenges when it comes to reporting incidents involving the theft of their data, including photos, videos, and contact information. Fearing blame and lacking support, they often choose to remain silent instead of seeking help.
In these cases, the impact on women journalists is two-fold. They not only bear the consequences of cyberattacks but also face pressure from certain members of their communities who tend to blame them rather than offer assistance.
Marwa (a pseudonym), a young Yemeni journalist who works part-time for several local platforms, shared her experience with SMEX during an interview. In May 2022, she was hacked after clicking on a phishing link disguised as an email invitation to a journalist training program.
A week after the incident, Marwa started receiving daily messages via email, containing private pictures of herself. What makes this case noteworthy is that the threatening party did not demand anything in exchange for not publishing the photos.
Instead, they resorted to intimidation, with the intent of sending Marwa into a panic. She refrained from seeking help, fearing that she would only get herself into further trouble. Marwa chose not to respond to any of the threats she received, and after approximately 45 days, the attackers ceased their messaging.
The Law Does Not Protect Journalists in Divided Yemen
The lack of legal protection for journalists in the divided state of Yemen is an undeniable issue. The absence of specialized legislation that guarantees immunity and safeguards the personal security and professional careers of journalists is a crucial necessity that many countries in the region fail to fulfill.
Yemeni lawyer Yasser Al-Mulaiki concurs with the accounts shared by Yemeni journalists regarding the frequent cyberattacks targeting their profession amid the ongoing conflict. Al-Mulaiki emphasizes, “Regrettably, Yemeni legislation has not adequately addressed electronic crimes, including those committed through digital means. With few exceptions, the existing laws primarily focus on traditional crimes and were enacted during the first decade following the establishment of the Republic of Yemen in 1990, which is quite outdated.”
However, Al-Mulaiki points out that this reality should not preclude the possibility of incorporating certain provisions to address this “new type of crime” within the existing legal framework; in fact, legislation concerning the protection of privacy and the inviolability of private life can be adapted to address these issues.
The absence of robust legislation addressing electronic crimes leaves Yemeni journalists vulnerable to cyberattacks, underscoring the urgent need for comprehensive legal reforms that account for the evolving digital landscape and ensure the protection of journalists’ rights and safety.
The Crimes and Penalties Law No. (12) of 1994 in Yemen indeed emphasizes the sanctity of private life and imposes penalties for acts committed without the consent of the victim. These include eavesdropping, recording, or transmitting conversations held in private places through any device, including phones, as well as the unauthorized taking and dissemination of pictures of individuals, through any device.
Similarly, the Criminal Procedures Law No. (13) of 1994 guarantees the freedom and confidentiality of postal, wire, and wireless correspondence, as well as all means of communication, in accordance with the Constitution. It prohibits controlling, monitoring, inspecting, disclosing confidentiality, impeding, or confiscating such communications, except in the cases which are laid out in the Law and then only under an order by the General Prosecution or the Court of competent jurisdiction.
Although these laws were not specifically designed to address cyberattacks, they can be applicable to cases of digital crimes, as Al-Mulaiki points out. These articles represent the minimum legislative protection available, not only for journalists but also for citizens in general, as well as agencies and institutions, especially that Yemeni legislation has not undergone any amendments since its issuance.
Furthermore, the Yemeni press and publications law does not currently address crimes related to the internet, networks, electronic information, or other cyber-related offenses. Additionally, there is no official specialized body responsible for information security in Yemen. Journalists and activists who fall victim to cybercrime often turn to digital security organizations or youth initiatives specialized in this field, according to the Yemeni lawyer.
In conclusion, Yemen serves as an example of how countries engulfed in political and military conflicts become dangerous territories for journalists. A report issued by the non-profit organization headquartered in Geneva “Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor” in November 2022 confirms this notion, revealing that at least five journalists are killed in Yemen every year. It states that journalism has become one of the most perilous professions, particularly in conflict zones, with journalists being the most targeted group in many countries across the WANA region.
If you face any digital threat, including online intimidation or hacking, reach out to the Digital Safety Helpdesk at SMEX. Our team of technologists will offer free and direct support to keep you secure online. Contact us on the following channels:
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