Geneva – The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNESCO must take effective measures to protect journalists in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, following the official admission by the Israeli government that its services security agencies used telecommunications company databases to track the work of journalists, Euro-Med Monitor said in a statement.
The Israeli government’s pursuit of some journalists “for reasons related to security and criminal investigations” should be met with a strong and coordinated response from relevant UN mechanisms and institutions, to ensure that those who are involved in illegal surveillance operations are held accountable and that violations by the Israeli authorities against journalists working in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories are stopped.
Nothing justifies the surveillance of journalists and the violation of their right to privacy, in particular the security pretexts that the Israeli authorities generally use within the framework of organized politics to justify arbitrary measures against civilians. The compliance of Israeli companies with domestic law regarding the sharing of user data does not exempt them from respecting human rights principles, in particular the right to privacy. Companies should only cooperate with authorities within narrow limits, when all legal requirements are met, and should be fully transparent with users about the risks and consequences of government requests for user data.
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights require companies to respect human rights and avoid causing or contributing to harm to users, and further hold them accountable by requiring the providing direct remedies if harm is actually caused; and establishing grievance mechanisms to address user concerns and limit harm.
In response to a petition filed with Israel’s Supreme Court, the Israeli government admitted a few days ago that Israel’s General Security Service (Shin Bet) had used telecommunications company databases to track the whereabouts and arrivals and communications of several journalists. The government cited a link between the targeted journalists and security and criminal investigations, and acknowledged tracking the locations of journalists, tracing their phone calls and determining the duration of the calls as well as the identities of the parties contacted.
Tracking data, as well as data from additional Shin Bet technical monitoring methods, is stored in the “Tool” system, which is constantly updated with information about all people in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including accurate information on the various movements and activities of people. Shin Bet law, approved in 2002, includes a clause requiring Israeli telecommunications companies to provide the agency with information about every call or message passing through their systems, without subjecting surveillance activities to public scrutiny or scrutiny judicial.
The Shin Bet law lacks a clear mechanism to protect those who enjoy professional secrecy, especially journalists, and opens the door to abuse of the law by restricting the freedom of journalists
and the ability of individuals to exercise their fundamental rights. Surveillance of the databases of Israeli telecommunications companies not only affects Arab journalists in Israel and East Jerusalem, but also Palestinian journalists in the West Bank who use the informally operated Israeli telephone networks, raising fears that their data privacy can be used to arbitrarily arrest and unlawfully convict them.
Israel controls the telecommunications sector in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, as Palestinian companies that provide landline, mobile and internet services obtain their frequencies only from Israel. In addition, Israeli authorities deliberately delay or prevent Palestinian companies from operating advanced communication technologies such as 4G and 5G networks; they only allowed 3G networks to operate a few years ago in the West Bank, while the Gaza Strip is still limited to 2G networks.
Israeli control over the Palestinian telecommunications sector allows Israeli military and security agencies to use communications networks to monitor Palestinians, violate their privacy and sometimes endanger their security and safety. The Israeli authorities’ use of espionage and illegal surveillance to violate the privacy of journalists also contributes to an atmosphere of intimidation and, in some cases, forces journalists to self-censor.
Euro-Med Monitor has pointed to the Israeli spyware Pegasus, a malicious program capable of hacking into any mobile phone system and allowing its operators to access messages, photos, e-mails and call recordings, as well as the ability to secretly activate microphones and cameras. There is evidence that Israel sold the program to many repressive countries and it was used against journalists and human rights defenders.
Violating the right to privacy of journalists and restricting their freedoms, including their communication mechanisms and their relationships with their sources, are examples of repressive mechanisms that violate international human rights covenants and relevant freedoms of journalism. The United Nations must use its special procedures to take serious action to ensure that Israel’s systematic violations of journalists in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including forms of harassment or attacks such as illegal mobile surveillance or cyber espionage, cease.