Ethiopia targets D.C. journalists with cyberattack

The Ethiopian government is using cyberattacks to try and stop news from reaching its citizens.

Researchers at the University of Toronto uncovered attempts by the Ethiopian government to hack into the computers of U.S.-based journalists working with Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT).


ESAT is an independent news outlet run by Ethiopian journalists who left their home country after being subjected to government threats or criminal charges.

“These digital attacks threaten journalists’ ability to protect the safety of their sources and to avoid retaliation,” said Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

According to the researchers, in November and December of last year, digital attackers tried to place spyware on the computers of two ESAT employees in Washington, D.C. The software would have allowed the hackers to steal files and passwords as well as intercept all Skype calls and instant messages.

The cyberattackers tried to infiltrate the computers via a fake email with an attached Microsoft Word Document that contained the malicious spyware.

It’s an updated version of a similar attack launched on the ESAT reporters in December 2013, the researchers said.

They believe the Ethiopian government was behind both incidents, based on an analysis of the email addresses and servers tied to the attacks.

Human Rights Watch said the attempts fit with the country’s poor record on press freedom.

The country has a long history of jailing journalists and shutting down media outlets, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The digital component has given the country another outlet to try and control the press, Wong said.

“Ethiopia’s government has over the past year intensified its assault on media freedom by systematically trying to silence journalists,” she said.