Press freedom requires press responsibility

July 16, 2018
Business News

About a month ago, I wrote about an unfortunate situation: A journalist for De Telegraaf published an article claiming a world-famous Russian cybersecurity company — presumably, Kaspersky Lab — had been hacked. That, of course, wasn’t true, and we wanted to prove it.

After exhausting all other possibilities to resolve the issue directly with the Dutch newspaper, we went to a Dutch court to defend our reputation. Fortunately, the judge presiding over the case confirmed today that Kaspersky Lab is due a full and proper rectification, and for that we are very grateful. But the significance of this case doesn’t end there.

Our internal research proved that the story about the hack was completely made up. But what shocked us most was what we discovered during our external research about how this article had been fabricated: Unrelated juicy stories — both real and false — were gathered (some recounted by Dutch politicians anonymously), given a good shake, and then stuck together seemingly at random. Even ex-minister WIllem Vermeend (V) said in a phone conversation with the “hacker” (R) (who was not at all pleased about having been framed by De Telegraaf) that the journalists got information from several Dutch politicians about various unrelated issues and brought it all together into a single sensationalized article:

R: Bart Mos [the journalist in question — the writer of the article] played a dirty game, didn’t he? And with those lies —

V: That’s what I said, that he played a dirty game, but OK, yes, of course he lied. I know about this from parliament, very simple, you said: “How do you know that name?” I didn’t have it from you, because you were not allowed to say anything. And you didn’t, and I was with Kees [a politician with the D66 political party] and he told me this, and then I said that name and then you said, “How do you know that?” That’s how it went.

R: But why, then, did De Telegraaf write…?

V: They make an exciting story! See, you have to realize, a journalist, if we had been with another newspaper, at first they wanted to completely burn you down, completely. If you had seen what they wrote about you, that is horrible; now they thought, we have to write something and they believe they helped you reasonably; in any event you are not presented as an idiot.

R: But why, then, did they put in those lies about Kaspersky?

V: That’s what they do! It’s really true! They have to tell an exciting story.

R: And how, then, do they manage to make up this thing about Kaspersky? I did not…

V: Kaspersky [stories] come from the parliament!

R: Oh, OK.

V: It comes from the parliament; they also called the parliament. They have dozens of sources; they called everyone.

And…

V: That connection with Kaspersky is already suggested in the parliament.

R: Yeah.

R: Ollongren is right, though, so…

V: I know that, I am not saying she is not right, but she also came up with Kaspersky, come on. They made that link a long time ago. This all comes out…for a part it comes from the parliament. So, I didn’t know anything and I also said to you…and then you said: “How do you know that?” So, I already knew everything, but not by myself; that’s not coming from me — I heard it in the parliament. I was with that Kees and he starts telling me, and he says: “Do you know about this?” I say: “No.” He says: “How annoying, and the state being involved….” And, what does the parliament do? What do those boys, those journalists do? They just start making phone calls, and those members of parliament, they talk and then they don’t have a source — you know how that works, it’s off the record, it has “not been said.” And those boys have all been approached. And there is a parliament committee meeting, etc. It’s very simple; that’s how it works.

R: It’s very annoying for me.

The same politicians who (according to Vermeend) feel free to disparage Kaspersky Lab in off-the-record — unsourced — remarks to journalists also make important decisions about the usage of our AV software by the Dutch government.

That said, now that the judge has ruled in our favor, why are we still talking about this case? Well, we need to keep talking about it because the public needs to have the truth. They need to be informed of what’s really going on — based on facts.

As a cybersecurity company, we take trust and transparency very seriously, and we have shown this time and again. But just as cybersecurity companies must make trust a priority, the media must also make promoting honesty and fairness a priority — especially nowadays, given the huge power of social media to spread information and the way it can be used by individuals, organizations, political parties, and even governments to influence people’s minds and actions — positively but also negatively. We absolutely respect freedom of the press, but with freedom comes great responsibility (as has been so famously stated again and again).

Journalists today have to hold themselves to the highest standards of responsible reporting. Moreover, they need to understand how their stories can be used in a multitude of ways to further someone’s agenda — including that of a politician, who might make false claims or, worse, political decisions based on stories in the press.

We have had an unfair amount of unverified, anonymously sourced articles written about us as a company — and even some about yours truly — and the imagined risk we pose simply because of where the company originated.

I still sympathize with reporters! Governments, influential people, and organizations around the world — all with their own agendas — can make establishing the truth of a media story very difficult. But report the truth, with factual evidence and verified sources, they must.

So I ask of you, dear media, to please be diligent in your work and not take freedom of the press for granted. The urgent need for serious reporting is more important than ever in this social media–driven era in which anybody can easily (re)post a story — no matter how blatantly false — that supports their narrative.

We must all, no matter what contribution we deliver to an open, honest, and transparent world, always be aware of our responsibility. As a leading cybersecurity software company, we’ve taken on the responsibility of making the world a safer and better place, and we’ll always take great pride in doing so. In your area of activity, can you say the same?