That’s Why We Do It

Alia Ibrahim

Will there be a day, when we feel less compelled to look over our shoulder – or at our phones – with fear and suspicion? Is it really possible we will feel safe at home again?

This article is part of the Pegasus Project, a collaborative investigation coordinated by the Paris-based media institution Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International’s technical laboratory. The project investigates data linked to the Israeli digital intelligence group NSO, which sells advanced surveillance systems to governments around the world.

80 journalists representing 17 media organizations from around the world, including Daraj, worked to produce this series of investigations.

In the last hours preceding the launch of the Pegasus project, an Iranian journalist living in a city as far from home as New York survived a kidnapping attempt. In Amsterdam, a Dutch journalist wasn’t as lucky. Closer to Beirut, in Baghdad, the murderer of a researcher, and personal friend, was finally arrested one year after committing the crime.

This is just one part of the context in which the 80 journalists collaborating on the Pegasus project had to work, day-in, day-out for over two months.

There was pressure and fear, for sure, along with the occasional sadness and anger. But there was also hope. In the face of the evil surrounding us, we are not helpless. The collaboration allowed us a sense of immunity.

It’s Wednesday evening in Beirut and the images of Masih Alinejad, defiant, courageous and smiling as she looks down from her window to the scene of FBI agents facing four Iranian operatives who were sent to kinap her, is as inspiring as it is infuriating.

All this plotting, all those resources, all this evil, to eliminate a woman whose only crime is the words and thoughts she insists on expressing freely. A crime she had already paid for by going into self-exile.

It’s Thursday in Beirut, and Peter R. de Vries, a colleague and personal friend to many of the journalists working on the Pegasus project is confirmed dead one week after being shot. “Peter fought to the end but was unable to win the battle,” said a statement issued by his family.

Reading the comments in our group fills me with sadness. My first thought is: thank God I did not know him personally.

It is shameful, I know, but also real. I’m just not capable yet of dealing with yet another personal loss.

It’s Saturday in Beirut, and we hear that the killer of Hisham al Hashemi, a researcher and personal friend, was arrested. He confessed his crime. I want to believe there will be a fair trial and that the killer will end up paying for his crime. But I doubt it.

Believing is all we have. But believing is so hard some days. On my screen, a photo of a smiling Hisham reminds me of him.

It’s still Saturday in Beirut, and the pressure of the last few weeks has taken a physical toll. Just a few more hours to go.

The view from the apartment of my friend Kim Ghattas is relaxing. She just got back from walking her dog Laika. We’re sipping coffee and eating labneh and, without sharing more than I could, I am finding some balance by listening to someone who wasn’t completely immersed in the project. Even Beirut can be so serene on a lazy sunny morning.

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“The impunity will end up tainting everyone,” Kim says. “It’s accountability to all or accountability to none.”

It’s true. It’s also democracy to all or to none. Justice to all or to none. It’s either a jungle to all or a civilized world to all. Today it feels more like a jungle.

It’s Sunday in Beirut, and I’m finishing a piece about Jamal Khashoggi.

For weeks we’ve been digging, researching and writing, and now it’s time for the last edits and final drafts. And some final thoughts.

Khachoggi wasn’t a personal friend, and I know that, had we been friends, we would have disagreed on many things: from our definitions of journalism and liberalism to what reform means and how it could be achieved.

But I wish I had known him personally. He would have been a good foe to have.

It would have been a word against a word. An idea against an idea.

It would have been fair.

And that would have been the bottom line.

It’s still Sunday in Beirut, and emotions are running high. My mind is racing, but one question prevails: will the Pegasus Project make us feel a little bit safer?

Us, journalists, human rights activists, researchers, dissidents. Us normal, unarmed citizens and freedom lovers.

Could it really be the beginning of a process that would hold companies and governments accountable?

Will there be a day, when we feel less compelled to look over our shoulder – or at our phones – with fear and suspicion? Is it really possible we will feel safe at home again?

Because that really is the bottom line.

It’s not only about NSO and Israel selling state-of-the-art technology to oppressive authoritarian regimes and dictatorships.

It’s also about the madness of giving such power to people who have no problem using violence to eliminate their enemies, regardless of who the actors are on both sides.

As tragic as the information revealed by the Pegasus project is, it is not surprising. Not to journalists living or working in the Middle East anyway.

If it’s not the Saudis or the Emiratis using Israeli technology to spy on you, it would be the Iranians or Hezbollah using Chinese or Russian technology.

If it is not them, it could be your own government tapping your phone or relying on the good old black-leather-jacket-wearing-spies and sharing the info with anyone willing to pay.

Hisham al Hashemi was one of the kindest, smartest and most generous people I have had the honor of knowing and working with. His love for Iraq was endless. He was shot dead in front of his home. His two sons, who had rushed out to greet him when they heard his car approaching, saw the murder.

Lokman Slim spent decades building an archive to keep the memory of the Lebanese Civil War alive. “So it doesn’t happen again.” He created UMAM and The Hangar next to his parents’ house in Beirut’s southern suburbs, which he refused to leave. He never compromised on opposing Hezbollah even in its stronghold. Even their direct threats didn’t stop him from expressing his thoughts.

He too ended up being murdered with two bullets to the neck. Here, in Lebanon, it doesn’t matter what evil you oppose. You live with the certainty that you are spied on and that someday you could become a target.

You live with the idea, and the guilt, that the choice you have made is a threat not only to you, but also to those you love most.

You live with the fear. And with time you become that fear, without even knowing it.

And that’s why you do it.

That’s why we at Daraj do it. That’s why I do it. That’s why I, as a mother, take the risk of being a journalist. I do it, so that the ones I love the most, my daughters, don’t have to grow up in a world where evil is bound to win, and go unpunished. In the face of evil, we are not helpless.

This is what’s in it for us.

For you, you who is reading. This is why we do it.

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