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Israeli tech used to imprison journalists in Myanmar — report

Company that breaches cellphones says it stopped service to country’s military rulers, but not before two Reuters reporters jailed

Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo, left, and Wa Lone, are handcuffed as they are escorted by police out of the court Monday, Sept. 3, 2018, in Yangon, Myanmar after being sentenced to seven years in prison. (AP /Thein Zaw)
Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo, left, and Wa Lone, are handcuffed as they are escorted by police out of the court Monday, Sept. 3, 2018, in Yangon, Myanmar after being sentenced to seven years in prison. (AP /Thein Zaw)

The military-backed government of Myanmar used Israeli technology to gather evidence that led to the jailing of two Reuters journalists, according to report on Sunday.

Police in Myanmar used Petah Tikva-based Cellebrite’s products to breach the journalists’ mobile phones, leading to the imprisonment of Pulitzer Prize-winners Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were sentenced to seven years in prison for violating state secrecy laws, the Washington Post reported.

The two journalists had been reporting on alleged government genocide against the minority Rohingya Muslim community, 1.1 million of whom have fled Myanmar due to persecution.

Cellebrite said its technology “enables investigators” and provides “a complete and objective picture of evidence, empowering agencies and investigators to solve and close cases faster.”

The Defense Ministry building in Tel Aviv, August 29, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Last year, Cellebrite claimed its technology can unlock any phone, making it easier for law enforcement agencies to gain access to files, in a development that prompted Apple to issue a security update for its iPhones.

A Cellebrite company statement said it froze all sales to Myanmar last year.

The Israeli firm said it demands customers “uphold the standards of international human rights law,” and in the “extremely rare case” of non-compliance, the company would cancel agreements.

A former Myanmar military official described the country as a “major customer” of Cellebrite, though the company said four or five months ago it would stop business in Myanmar, he told the Post.

Israel has been accused of supplying Myanmar with “advanced weapons” during the country’s ethnic cleansing campaign against its Rohingya Muslims. The Foreign Ministry admitted last year that Israel had sold weapons to Myanmar in the past, but said that it had frozen all contracts earlier in 2017.

Israel’s defense exports in 2018 were worth around $7.5 billion. Israel sees the defense exports as key to driving upgraded ties with countries around the world, but it has come under scrutiny for sales of weapons, drones and cyberspying technology to regimes accused of having spotty human rights records.

Last month, Israel’s defense ministry suspended the licenses of two subsidiaries of Israeli tech company Ability for violating defense export laws, with a gag order placed on most of the details surrounding the investigation.

Another Israeli company, NSO, is facing lawsuits alleging it sold spyware to governments with questionable human rights records.

Israel has been accused of selling weapons and military services to human rights violators around the world for decades, including to apartheid South Africa, Rwanda during the 1994 genocide and in recent years to South Sudan, despite a near-universal arms embargo over the bloody civil war there.

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