GIA is considered to be a prestigious organization in Europe, which has been active for more than five years. We are an independent entity which conducts investigative journalism. Journalists who work with us went through multiple conflicts – economic, political and military as well. We have seen much and we are ready to endure any task at hand. 

But in spite of that, individuals who become the subjects of our investigations still try to influence us in every possible way. Here is the incident which involved my colleague, Chris Hughes.

Influences on a journalist

A few weeks ago, my colleague, Chris Hughes from Global Investigation Agency started receiving threats from unknown people. In the beginning, there were only emails. 

Some of these letters:

Email 1

Hello, dear Chris. How is your life? Are you concerned with your health? You do not have to answer. I wanted to say I saw your wife Margareta on work and on restaurant. Seeing from her order she likes Japanese cuisine. I do not share her taste.

I will get to deal. Your articles was sent to me soon. I must say I do not like them very much. I want to ask to clear your investigations, because I did not like them, other good people did not like too. Also I want you to change your job. You have much of cash to live a great life, open restaurant in restful spot. Believe me it will be better for you and your wife.

Email 2

Hi, Chris! How are you? I saw Margareta today. Did you treat her with white dress? Tell her that it look nice on her. Speaking of palm tree on your window, where it? I feel like I know you all my life. You look as hunter-pathfinder. You do investigations who nobody need. But did you think that you accidentally started hunting after dangerous beast? Did you hunted bear? Comon hunt together. Say hello to Margareta for me, maybe I will come with my friends in your house, I am definite you like guests. It will be great if Margaret join the hunt.

Email 3
Hi, Chris! You have seven days left. I recommend to enjoy time on the maximum. Speak your wife not to blame you for sudden incident.

These are not all letters received by Chris. Among all messages received, some of them contain personal information about Chris and his family. These emails are not posted for obvious reasons.

The subsequent actions that were carried out to put pressure on Chris I would describe as a cyber attack. To name a few: caller ID spoofing was used, Chris received calls from his wife’s phone number and co-workers at different times of the day (early morning, afternoon, night). When Chris picked up the phone he would hear the terrible news that allegedly happened to his close ones (car accident, plane crash, rape, and other incidents). Global Investigation Agency editorial team also received calls from Chris’s number with similar messages. Emails and telephone messages were all about demanding to stop journalistic activities and investigations. In order to fulfill these demands, in particular, they made a number of calls from Chris’s phone number, which was aimed at discrediting his reputation as a journalist among our former clients, partners and independent entities, who had to stop their activities, according to the plan of ones who carried out the attack. 

Chris was forced to change residence place, to keep his family safe, and took an indefinite leave of absence. One thing that has to be pointed out is that he was subjected to methods of pressure that were used against many of us in the past. Yet in this case, he was exposed to a targeted discrediting campaign 24/7. Certainly, Chris knows how to deal with these situations. He and his family are safe.

Now I will describe possible reasons of why my colleague became a target.

Threat analysis

Analyzing letters we can tell that the author is most likely a Russian speaking person for a list of obvious reasons. The writing style is foreign to the usual, everyday English and there are some mistakes an English speaker would never make. Besides, it looks like the sender tried to use endings in the name, which has a place in the Russian language but not in the English. I am inclined to think that the author of anonymous calls and emails is a Russian speaker, maybe a resident and/or native of the CIS countries. 

In the second email, an anonymous author uses terms such as “hunter” and “bear.” Furthermore, take a look at the attached photo. Image of a bear killing hunter, which is a form of a psychological impact. Evidently, the bear represents Russia and the hunter represents the journalist.

Another important point is the email domain of a sender. The mailbox belongs to Yandex, which is very popular in Russia and used as an analog of Google.

Who stands behind these threats? 

The first thing I want to focus on is the content of emails; Chris is pressed to stop his investigations and remove all articles he has written. The source of the attack is directly related to his journalistic activities. Among the latest investigations of Chris, the most explosive was the investigation about the Russian manufacturer of household appliances Polaris and its competitor Redmond.

To briefly summarize Chris’s investigation: Polaris representatives initiated investigations against Redmond, accusing them of unfair and illegal competition. Several international experts have concluded that these accusations have no grounds. On top of all, Chris found a connection among the management of Polaris (Oleg Agishev and Alexei Kosiakov) and representatives of the FSB and the ROC. 

Besides, we can conclude that psychological methods of influence described above are typical for Russian business. This conclusion coincides with the results of analysis of emails received by Chris. We contacted representatives of Interpol and Chris’s mobile operator, and we were able to find out that caller ID spoofing was carried out from Russia. Over the past year and a half, the investigation initiated by Polaris representative is the only investigation of Chris linked to Russia.

We are going to take decisive actions to stop this cyber attack. We have already provided some of the materials to Interpol (France and the UK). We will also appeal to other non-governmental organizations that can influence the situation at a higher level. By now, we have already prepared letters to EU entities on the protection of journalists’ rights.