2022 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Large Newsroom winner

The Pegasus Project: A global investigation

About the Project

Over the years, stories have alleged that governments were using powerful Pegasus spyware from Israel’s NSO Group to hack the cellphones of innocent individuals. But NSO always dismissed the allegations as overhyped aberrations, and the subject went away. Then a series of reports landed that could not be ignored: the Pegasus Project.

The reporting was undertaken by an international consortium of investigative journalists organized by the Paris-based nonprofit Forbidden Stories under the Pegasus Project title. The Washington Post and the Guardian-US were the English-language reporting partners in the effort. The project relied on the work of more than 80 journalists in more than a dozen countries representing 16 news organizations, including Le Monde and Süddeutsche Zeitung. The media organizations pooled their research but wrote their own reports.

Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories were able to obtain access to lists of 50,000 phone numbers generated for surveillance by governments around the world. Combing through the list, the journalism consortium identified the owners of more than 1,000 phones: 65 business executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists and more than 600 politicians and government officials — though NSO had insisted its software was intended to target only terrorists and criminals. Also on the list were 10 prime ministers, three presidents, including Emmanuel Macron of France, and a king. Teaming with researchers from Amnesty International’s Security Lab, the reporters found that 37 of those phones had been subjected to attempted or successful Pegasus hacks. Subsequent investigations have revealed dozens more, including the phone of the Spanish prime minister.

The reporting documented Pegasus’s vast reach, exposed the vulnerability of Apple iPhones and identified numerous victims, including the wife and fiancée of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the period before his murder, and a Dubai princess fleeing from the country’s powerful leader. The reporting also exposed NSO’s lobbying ties to former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein and former homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson.

The work submitted for this award was produced by The Washington Post, The Guardian-US and Forbidden Stories.

Judges Comments

This global investigation shows the power of collaboration between NGOs and media to uncover the practices that affect the people who are often under threat by powerful governments. The presentation is simple and impactful. It’s a significant collaborative achievement using fresh technological techniques.