Morocco has filed a lawsuit against a Spanish journalist for his reporting of the Moroccan government and intelligence services using the advanced Israeli Pegasus spyware against him and others.
According to the news agency, AFP, yesterday, Morocco submitted the lawsuit to a court in the Spanish capital, Madrid, against the journalist, Ignacio Cembrero, accusing him of "slander" for reporting that Moroccan authorities had hacked his phone with the Pegasus spyware in 2019.
The Pegasus spyware – developed and owned by the Israeli NSO Group – was made infamous over the past few years as a result of its hacking scandals, particularly in July last year when the University of Toronto's internet watchdog, Citizen Lab, exposed its clients' misuse of the spyware through the hacking of around 50,000 phones and devices belonging to journalists, human rights activists and political critics worldwide.
Phones and devices infected with Pegasus spyware become fully compromised, with the users' data, pictures, messages and location being made accessible to the governments and agencies targeting them. Even the cameras and microphones on their devices can be activated without the users' knowledge. The infection of the devices can be achieved through the user clicking or opening a message or link, or even without any interaction at all through the latest 'zero-click' malware.
Amongst the multitude of governments and intelligence agencies which were revealed to have used the spyware were United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Bahrain and Morocco.
Rabat's lawyer denied the North African country's use of it; however, it insisted in the suit that "The reality is that the Kingdom of Morocco is not responsible for spying on D. Ignacio Cembrero, nor on any other citizen. The Kingdom of Morocco does not have the Pegasus program."
Responding to Morocco's lawsuit against him, Cembrero – an expert on relations between Spain and Morocco at the Spanish news outlet, El Confidentiel – called it "a political trial to curtail journalists' freedom of expression", Rabat is demanding, in the suit, that he withdraws his accusations and reimburse the costs of the trial.
The journalist has long incited the anger of the Moroccan government over the years of his reporting in the region as a correspondent, and this is not the first time it has attempted to take legal action against him.
In 2013, Morocco's Prime Minister filed a criminal complaint against him in Spain, claiming he was "inciting terrorism" by including a link to an Al-Qaeda video in a blog post. Another complaint was filed by Ahmed Charai, the Moroccan publisher and media owner, a man who Cembrero has claimed is connected to the country's intelligence services. Both of those suits were dismissed by Spanish courts, however.
Aside from Cembrero himself reportedly being hacked by Moroccan authorities, numerous other Spaniards – and other foreigners – are said to have been surveilled by the country's intelligence services through the use of the Pegasus spyware.
Several Spanish officials' phones were reported to have been hacked by Moroccan intelligence, including Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez's and Defence Minister Margarita Robles's last year. Even figures like Moroccan King Mohammed VI himself and French President Emmanuel Macron were allegedly targeted.
According to the prominent Spanish newspaper, El Correo, a few months ago, Spain's intelligence services are investigating Morocco over the spyware claims. Such investigation and suspicion on Madrid's part may potentially impact Rabat's current lawsuit against Cembrero.