Observant website intentionally sabotaged

Observant website intentionally sabotaged

Targeted cyber-attack because of disagreeable reporting

15-03-2022

MAASTRICHT. The cyber-attack of Observant’s website, mid-January, was a conscious action to silence the university newspaper. The content of certain articles was not received well by the anonymous perpetrators; claiming them to be “racist” and “transphobic”. This appeared from an e-mail to the editors, almost two weeks after the site was brought down. Student group Feminists of Maastricht applauded the attack on Instagram. That group had earlier been angered by the Observant’s use of language.

With the e-mail in which responsibility for the cyber-attack was claimed, Observant went to the police. A DDoS attack, in which a server is flooded to such an extent that websites are made inaccessible, is a crime that can lead to a prison sentence. Police cyber specialists carried out an investigation, but they were unable to determine who the perpetrators were. They did conclude that this (“with almost 100 per cent certainty”) concerned a purchased DDoS attack, which can be obtained for ten or twenty euro.

In order not to impede the ongoing investigation, Observant decided to only publish about the claimed responsibility of the cyber-attack, after the investigation was completed. The investigation has by now been stopped; officially because of lack of evidence, but actually because of detectives’ lack of time.

The e-mail

Observantonline.nl was down from 11 until 13 January. On 24 January, the anonymous perpetrators – who themselves use the plural form ‘we’ – sent an e-mail in English to the editors (as they did to various queer and anti-racism organisations as well as local media, they reported) under the heading: “What really happened and why”.

In the e-mail, they accuse Observant of “false journalism and hateful articles”. The newspaper is a platform that is offered to the “extreme right”. The editors were also reproached for being “racist” and “transphobic”. Anyone who “hurts people”, can expect the same treatment in return, the message stated. Should Observant again publish something that is not to their liking, they will bring the site down again, they warn.

Executive Board

“Not done, shocking", says President of Maastricht University, Rianne Letschert. "That an independent university newspaper is shut down, affects the freedom of speech and the press. The Executive Board distances itself from this. If you don’t agree with something, if you have a difference of opinion, you discuss it in a respectful manner. In a dialogue session or via the newspaper/site with open letters, but you don’t shut down a website.” Whoever the perpetrators are, may always remain unclear, but Letschert hopes that “organisations connected to the UM would never lower themselves to such action”.

FOM

“Extreme right” and “racist”; the editors have never been blamed for that before. “Transphobic” they have, in e-mails from the student group Feminists of Maastricht (FOM). The students disagree with the choice of language in a news article from November last year.

That article was about the UM-sponsored action by FOM and its subgroup Bloody Serious to place free tampons and sanitary towels here and there in the university toilets. Observant wrote in this regard about women as the users of this material, FOM however, felt that not only women menstruate and wanted women to be changed to people. The editors did not go along with this. The “transphobic” piece was to be adapted or removed, they demanded in an e-mail, otherwise “we will mobilise our community”.

Freedom of press

The chief editor devoted an editorial piece to the matter. The tenor was that freedom of press is a valuable asset, and yes, people can disagree with certain choices, which is why there is a letter-to-the-editor column, but aggressive language and threats go beyond all limits. Moreover, she wrote, this concerns a rather new discussion in the gender domain which still has not been crystalised in generally accepted conclusions. FOM sympathisers made themselves heard with comments on the site, in which the editors were again accused of being transphobic.

Indymedia

A UM employee wants to publicly react, albeit anonymous, for fear of intimidation and aggression. That piece, in which the writer disagrees with the gender approach of FOM & co, was obviously the last straw for the critics of Observant. This is clear from the fact that the people who caused the DDoS attack didn’t only inform the editors with an e-mail, but published also on the Dutch platform Indymedia.nl (where everyone can post “alternative news”). This time also a reference is made to the opinion piece of the UM employee; it was supposedly “extremely transphobic”.

Mobilising

Was the DDoS attack part of “mobilising our community”, as student group FOM previously announced in the e-mail to the editors? Nothing can be said about this with any certainty. When the editorial board asked Natalia Nieczypor, FOM board member and chairperson of Bloody Serious, whether she would answer some questions, she said that the group wants to have no more contact.

Instagram

But what about the ten anonymous Maastricht students who have joined together in Periods have no gender? They manage an Instagram account and distribute posters around the city that accuse the university newspaper of using discriminating language. Plus: they have a website that is devoted entirely to the “shocking events” between FOM and Observant. On this site, the correspondence between FOM and several Observant editors is discussed in detail.
Nevertheless, Nieczypor denies that FOM and Bloody Serious are involved in Periods have no gender.

Likes

That the cyber action to bring down Observant had the approval of certain circles, is apparent when the Periods group puts the e-mail by the perpetrators of the DDoS attack on its Instagram account, including a jubilant recommendation. This was followed by ‘Likes’, among others from FOM. But also Let’s Talk About YES (a public campaign by Amnesty International, whose manifesto the UM signed), as well as a number of individuals who are related to organisations that come under the UM’s Diversity and Inclusivity Office.

A limit

“I have nothing against peaceful activism, in order to show that you feel that inclusivity at the university is important, but there is a limit as to how far you can go”, said diversity officer Constance Sommerey a few weeks ago when she was confronted with the state of affairs. “That an organisation that works with the UM, ‘romanticises’ and ‘likes’ a criminal act such as a cyber-attack, I find problematic. I will speak to these organisations about this.”
President Rianne Letschert agrees: “You don’t do this. Let me just say it is ‘unusual’.”

Both FOM and Let’s Talk About YES have now removed their likes on the Instagram post. Sommerey: “I've talked to them about it and they have understood.”

 

Read the editorial that editor-in-chief Riki Janssen wrote about this issue today: "How a discussion went off the rails".

E-mail of the perpetrators of the cyber-attack
One of the posters of anonymous student group Periods have no gender

 

Author: Wendy Degens

Illustration: Simone Golob

Categories: News, news_top
Tags: ddos attack, cyberattack, fom, gender, cybercrime,feminists of maastricht, diversity

Responses

LAM

Having followed the discussion from the beginning, I have noticed a disconnect between the articles calling for a discussion of the matter and responses to them. The responses either dismiss the articles outright (along with accusations of transphobia etc.), misunderstand (or misrepresent) the articles’ content or attempt to intimidate opposition. There is no engagement with the articles’ content. These discussion-terminating strategies have no place at a university at which no beliefs or political positions are exempt from scrutiny and discussion. If you want unquestioning obedience, enroll in a cult not a university.

Puck Barton

This article makes it very obvious that you think Feminists of Maastricht has something to do with the cyber attack, perhaps even did it. That's a serious accusation, for which you better have proof to back that up. Otherwise, this article is just one big piece of slander. At least that presumed statement from the hackers on Indymedia doesn't point in their direction at all, they only mention that transphobic article from your anonymous author (which, let's be honest, was indeed a hurtful and transphobic article).

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