Mirror sites, spyware, and journalists in exile: An interview with RSF

The freedom of the press is essential to democracy and allows you to be aware of whether your rights are being respected. Unfortunately, journalists worldwide are facing unprecedented intimidation, surveillance, and censorship. This is why Proton has always stood with journalists. Empowering them with the security, privacy, and freedom to report the truth has always been a critical consideration as we develop our encrypted ecosystem of products.

Proton has also partnered with Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international nonprofit that supports journalists worldwide so that they can deliver accurate information to the public. We have worked with RSF several times over the years, starting in 2018 when we supported their Berlin Scholarship Program to train journalists working in conflict zones on how to improve their digital security.

On this World Press Freedom Day, we spoke with Lisa Dittmer(new window), the advocacy officer for internet freedom for RSF Germany. We talked about what RSF is doing to ensure people can still access the news in Russia and Ukraine, the state of press freedom in the world today, and different RSF projects. 

The transcript of our conversation below has been edited for clarity and length.

It’s hard to talk about press freedom and censorship without starting with what’s going on in Russia and Ukraine. RSF has come up with an interesting way to get news into Russia. Could you explain what it is and how it’s working?

“Yeah, it’s been a crisis that’s kept us busy for the last few weeks. And we’re used to dealing with crises, but this is a big one. First of all, working in Berlin, we’ve seen a real outpouring of support and solidarity with Ukraine. I don’t think we’ve seen, in any recent crisis, so much support from everyday folks from members in various European nations and from professional media organizations wanting to help in some way or another. So we’re trying as best as we can to support Ukrainians on the ground.

But this whole parallel crisis obviously has taken place that isn’t getting quite as much attention, which is the massive scaling up of the already existing censorship in Russia. So first, there are emergency requests for help in the sense that journalists are considering leaving a country that they feel they cannot work in without betraying their ideals and their journalistic duties. So they feel they have to leave the country. 

There are a lot of Russian media organizations who are keen to just basically relocate their entire editorial teams to Berlin or Warsaw or Istanbul to continue their work. And what we have to make sure now is that they can do this. For Ukrainian journalists, it’s quite clear, they’ve got refugee status. While this situation is not always easy to manage, there’s at least some legal clarity to it that for Russians isn’t a given. So right now, we’re lobbying to make sure that they get permission to work immediately and get the support they need.

But we also want to support Russian reporters who are brave enough and, to an extent, daring enough to continue working in Russia. They face being surveilled and arrested for the work they do, for daring to speak out, or for using words that are now illegal. They risk going to prison for up to 15 years for calling the war a “war” or an “invasion”. So we’re very keen to support them and their work. So we reinvigorated an existing project called Collateral Freedom(new window)

The idea is that you create these mirror pages, so exact copies, of a media website, and you host them on international servers that are not easy for countries, even countries as big and capable as Russia, to simply shut down access to entirely. 

We’ve created pages for news websites that are still working within Russia, but mostly we host organizations that got shut down or had their entire teams forced to go abroad. We also host a few exiled media organizations, such as Meduza(new window), that have been working from neighboring European nations for a long time and have a big reach. 

I think in the first 20 days or so we saw something like 200 million access requests. There is, especially among young Russians, a real interest in independent information. And they know how to use alternative channels. A lot of young Russians also know how to use VPNs or the Tor browser to circumvent censorship. But obviously, as much as we can, we want to make sure that the threshold to access this sort of information is as low as it can be. We want to make sure that people can access independent information even without VPNs.”

If you are talking to someone who is trying to bypass state censorship or if they’re trying to find the truth online, what would you advise them to do?

“I don’t think there’s one hint or a specific tool that will keep everyone safe. And it’s always important to underline, obviously, that people face very different threats. So no one tool will work for everyone. But I do tell everyone concerned about their security or trying to bypass censorship to use end-to-end encrypted tools and use open-source tools where you can be sure that someone has looked at the code critically and that you’re not just trusting a corporate promise.”

To zoom out a bit, what, in your estimation, is the state of press freedom in the world today? Do you think it’s trending for the better or worse? What issues are you worried about?

“Lots of issues. [Laughter]  Obviously, it’s hard to paint a global picture. I think one trend that we see overall is this polarization of the media fueled by financial and political threats. This is being promoted further by big corporate takeovers of media outlets. These big conglomerates are reducing the plurality of media voices out there. And that’s a trend that we see in many countries, regardless of whether they are on the more democratic side of the scale or not. 

Together with the continuing impact of violent conflicts on the physical security of journalists in many states, these are some of the patterns reflected in our latest edition of the World Press Freedom Index(new window). And actually, the methodology is changing a little bit this year, so it won’t be quite as easy to directly compare the 2022 version and previous years. We’ve enlarged our criteria a little bit to better reflect some of the digital aspects and the larger political, economic, and socioeconomic context shaping the situation of media freedom in each state, in addition to factors such as security. Previous press freedom indexes of the last 20 years focused more narrowly on traditional press freedom violations, such as the murder of journalists, incarcerations, physical attacks, etc. But now, we aim to also measure how the general mood or openness can impact how free people feel to report on certain subjects. 

For example, we see that people in Germany feel relatively free to report on many subjects. But if you are an immigrant or have a migration background or work on gender issues, your estimation of how free you are to research subjects and how open you feel to discuss these subjects can differ widely. So our new index will reflect that as well. 

And then there’s all the issues that I work on, specifically in the digital realm. Obviously, censorship and surveillance are becoming much, much more prevalent. For the everyday journalists, not just the most prominent investigative journalists, it’s now a very large issue in the sense that they’re noticing this is having a chilling effect on sources. It’s impacting them in ways that used to only affect the high-profile investigative news stories. Now it’s becoming something that every news editor is concerned about.”

Let’s talk about that a bit. Journalists face so many threats today, and a new one is the prevalence of spyware from organizations like FinFisher and NSO. It seems like governments are starting to take action to prevent this spyware from ending up on journalist devices. Do you think it’s enough? Do you think it’ll make an appreciable difference? 

“There have been good steps. Certainly, I think the US blacklisting of NSO(new window) was one of the most important steps. That a very prominent and big player clearly called out this company for what it did took experts by surprise to an extent. But it’s not nearly enough. We would need to see a proper binding regulation. We’ve been calling for a moratorium on the sale and export of such spyware(new window)

Pegasus is just the tip of the iceberg. So yes, we’ve recently celebrated that it looks like FinFisher took real hits from the German investigation(new window) into how it allegedly illegally supplied spyware to the Turkish government, but there are many, many more countries out there misusing these tools. And there are many more companies who will profit from a market that’s very lucrative still. 

Now in Europe, it’s a good sign that the European Parliament has just recently started an inquiry committee, which will look into the role of European states in abusing and misusing spyware. It will also look into how European states allegedly gave out export licenses to NSO. NSO even had offices in European member states, some of which apparently were willing to grant them export licenses. So clearly, our regulation isn’t making sure that human rights risks are really being assessed either. 

So far, Costa Rica recently was the first UN member to support this call for a moratorium(new window). Many others have condemned the abuse and called for some sort of unspecific inquiries but otherwise have been noncommittal. But what we’ve seen is that the profits are still there. And TIME Magazine recently had NSO as one of its most influential companies of 2022(new window). So if anything, bad press is still press. And as long as this proliferation continues, then we’re not going to see a real end to this.”

To wrap up, RSF is very active in promoting press freedom worldwide. Are there any other RSF projects that you’d like to highlight?

“One of our biggest current projects right now with the Ukraine-Russia crisis is the JX Fund(new window). It was developed during this crisis by several foundations together with RSF to make sure that journalists forced into exile get the proper support, whether they be Russians or Ukrainians or anyone else. 

This fund lets reporters continue their work because many of the journalists I’m in touch with are often forced to take day jobs and just do reporting on the side. They have to invest crazy hours in the middle of the night to put out a video or a podcast to inform the public back home. I think that’s a really important one.

Right now, we’re trying to make sure that within Ukraine people have access to physical equipment. We launched a press center in Lviv(new window) with local partners to make sure that journalists in Ukraine get security vests and psychological support. Because obviously, tons of editors who were working on domestic issues recently are now suddenly forced to become conflict zone reporters. Not all of these people were made for this sort of situation. So we’re giving the best support we can to ensure they survive and that there’s an income and a basic level of safety. That’s a big, important project right now.”

Proton strongly supports freedom of information and is committed to ensuring a free press that can report all sides of every story. In addition to partnering with RSF, Proton has also provided cybersecurity training through the Asian Investigative Journalism Conference, and financially supported Charter’97, one of Belarus’s last independent news outlets. You can support this work by subscribing to a paid plan(new window) for end-to-end encrypted and open-source Proton Mail.

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