Moroccan journalist Omar Radi has learned to assume that he is always under surveillance. He is tailed as he investigates stories, his computer has been hacked and his phone has been targeted by sophisticated spyware.
Omar’s investigations into links between political interests and big business, as well as his strong criticism of Morocco’s human rights record, have made him a target of repression, as the authorities seek to silence dissenting voices.
They can attack you through your closest friends, through your personal stuff. So maybe, because of me, relatives, family, friends, will get hurt.Omar Radi
In March he was given a suspended four-month prison term for a Tweet sent the previous year that castigated a court judge over the unfair trial and jailing of a group of activists. Omar is appealing his conviction.
Despite the authorities trawling through every aspect of his life, Omar is determined to keep telling the stories he cares about. He is not afraid for his own safety, but he worries that his loved ones will suffer. “They can attack you through your closest friends, through your personal stuff. So maybe, because of me, relatives, family, friends, will get hurt,” he says.
Earlier this month, the name of his female housemate was published on a popular news site which Omar says is sometimes used by intelligence services to discredit journalists. The story accused them of having an “illegal relationship out of wedlock” and alleged Omar had been spotted drunk in the street. The same article also included details of a phone conversation he’d had with an American researcher.
“They are looking for arguments to damage my image, to undermine my credibility in public,” he explains, adding that the article was also meant to serve as a warning to him that he was being watched.
Omar is unsure exactly how this particular trove of personal information was gathered but believes it was a combination of phone hacking and old-fashioned street surveillance.
A new Amnesty investigation has revealed that his phone was repeatedly targeted using Pegasus spyware from Israeli company NSO Group between January 2019 and January 2020. The tool silently gives an attacker complete access to messages, emails, media, microphone, camera, calls and contacts.
Amnesty and others have documented a pattern of NSO spyware being used to target civil society in . A previous Amnesty probe last year discovered that Moroccan activists had become victims. One of the malicious websites identified in that investigation as being used to target Moroccan academic and activist Maati Monjib was also linked with the attacks on Omar.
Increased surveillance of government critics has come hand in hand with a growing number of arbitrary arrests and prosecutions in Morocco. Since November 2019, Amnesty has documented ten cases of activists, including Omar, who have been unlawfully arrested, prosecuted and handed prison terms for offending public officials or institutions, or the monarchy.
Omar describes how reporting in Morocco is becoming more difficult. Earlier this year, as part of an investigation into land rights abuses, he interviewed villagers who later called him to retract their quotes, saying they had been threatened by the police. “I ended up not putting it out to protect people, but I think that’s bound to happen again. It’s the authorities’ modus operandi now,” he says.
Some parts of the country have become no-go areas for him. He describes the Rif region as under “a quasi-military blockade”. The last time he visited in 2017 to film there he was detained for 48 hours and says he cannot return.
Just because we’re being watched does not mean that we’re not going to do our job.Omar Radi
Since Amnesty confirmed in February that his phone had been targeted by NSO spyware, he has warned close friends, colleagues and contacts that their information may have been leaked. Now he is trying to do all he can to circumvent surveillance, although he describes it as a David and Goliath battle.
“The goal is to make it difficult for them, to learn certain reflexes,” he says.
Omar tries to have sensitive conversations in person as much as possible, keeping phone use to a minimum, and does what he can to keep the spies on their toes.
Although the intense surveillance he and others are under means that investigative journalism projects take longer to come to fruition, he is still pushing to get around those obstacles.
“Just because we’re being watched does not mean that we’re not going to do our job,” he says.