Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has included pro-Kremlin social-media users, Russia’s communications regulator, and an Iranian state body tackling cybercrime on its list of press freedom’s 20 “worst digital predators” that it says represent a “clear danger for freedom of opinion and expression.”
The Paris-based media freedom watchdog unveiled the list ahead of the World Day Against Cybercensorship to be marked on March 12.
This list, which RSF says is not exhaustive, includes “state offshoots” and government agencies in authoritarian countries. It also covers private-sector companies specializing in targeted cyberespionage that are based in Western countries such as the United States and Britain.
“The authoritarian strongmen behind predatory activity against press freedom are extending their tentacles into the digital world with the help of armies of accomplices, subordinates, and henchmen who are organized and determined digital predators,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in a statement.
“These accomplices sometimes act from or within democratic countries,” Deloire said, adding that “opposition to despotic regimes also means ensuring that the weapons for suppressing journalism are not delivered to them from abroad.”
In Russia and Iran, the “Kremlin’s troll army,” Russia’s media watchdog Roskomnadzor, and the Iranian Cyberspace Supreme Council use digital technology to “spy on and harass” journalists and thereby “jeopardize” people’s ability to get news and information, according to RSF.
It said pro-Kremlin actors use social media to spread “false” reports and videos, publish personal information, and attack the reputation of journalists.
One of their targets includes Finnish investigative journalist Jessikka Aro, who in a recently published book “shed light on the propaganda they spread about those who denounce their activities.”
For instance, Russian journalist Igor Yakovenko and the Moscow-based foreign reporters Isabelle Mandraud and Shaun Walker are “often targeted by this troll army,” according to RSF.
Meanwhile, Roskomnadzor has “blocked more than 490,000 websites without warning and without respecting legal procedure and has a secret blacklist of banned sites,” the group said.
The government agency’s targets have included Ferghana and other news agencies, investigative sites such as Listok and Grani.ru, and political magazines including ej.ru and mbk.news.
Roskomnadzor also “blocks platforms and apps that refuse to store their data on servers in Russia or provide the Russian authorities with keys to decrypt messages,” RSF said, citing the example of the encrypted messaging service ProtonMail, which was partially blocked earlier this year.
RSF said the Iranian Cyberspace Supreme Council uses “online selective access and control,” and blocks news websites, platforms, and apps such as Telegram, Signal, WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter to enforce state censorship.
Created in 2012 and consisting of senior military and political figures, the council “is constructing a firewall using Internet filtering techniques,” the watchdog said.
“Internet shutdowns are increasingly used to contain and suppress waves of street protests, and to restrict the transmission and circulation of independent information regarded as ‘counter-revolutionary’ or ‘subversive’ in nature,” it added.