A group of Russia-linked cybercriminals claims it was behind a major attack on the Times of Malta website, purportedly to fight "those who support sanctions against Russia".
The hackers have also threatened to go after other Maltese sites.
The so-called People’s Cyber Army of Russia called on its followers to target Times of Malta in a message posted to a Telegram group named ‘People’s CyberArmy’ on Tuesday at 7.57am.
"We continue our modest work against Malta," a message to the group's 31,600 subscribers read.
“Next up the oldest daily newspaper in Malta is the Times of Malta... We are not against the country itself and its inhabitants, we are against those who support sanctions against Russia. Let's attack."
A short time later, Times of Malta's website was overwhelmed by connection requests, forcing it offline.
The attack, known as a Distributed Denial of Service, or DDoS, overloaded Times of Malta servers and breached existing protections in place, causing the website to go offline for most readers for around 45 minutes at its peak, after the Telegram group was instructed to "attack". It continued until 10am on Tuesday.
The attack was purely external and no data breach is suspected.
Times of Malta has reported the cyberattack to the police, who are investigating and are constantly being updated.
Although Malta's largest website has been targeted in the past, the scale of Tuesday's attack was unprecedented locally.
This concerted effort appears to be an assault on the principles of free press and free speech, ideals sorely absent in Putin’s Russia
Editor-in-chief Herman Grech and online editor Bertrand Borg said: "So far, it appears that this malicious attack on our website was perpetrated by Russian hackers or people supporting an illegal and brutal war condemned by the civilised world.
"This concerted effort appears to be an assault on the principles of free press and free speech, ideals sorely absent in Putin’s Russia. We will continue cooperating with the police and our international media partners to try to reduce these cowardly tactics."
Who are the Russian cybercriminals?
The People’s Cyber Army of Russia is a prominent group in the world of cybercrime, and has been implicated in several major cyberattacks.
According to Radware, a cybersecurity provider, the group has been around for years, often targeting Ukrainian targets.
The group is believed to have targeted Ukrainian power companies in 2015 and 2016, causing power outages across parts of the country, and also claimed responsibility for a massive DDoS attack on Ukraine's nuclear agency.
In February 2023, it attacked a Ukrainian satellite provider, as it sought to disrupt the country's communications capabilities.
The group believes that Ukraine is under the “leadership of the United States” and is fighting an information war against Russian citizens.
“We created this movement to jointly respond to any actions directed against our compatriots. All our operations are aimed at conveying a simple message- we do not accept a security threat to our country.”
The Maltese government and Times of Malta have been vocal in their criticism of Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine, which has sparked a devastating war.
The Telegram post urging cybercriminals to attack Times of Malta was flagged to Times of Malta on Wednesday by cyber security researcher and threat intelligence analyst Ziyahan Albeniz.
On the same day, the Telegram chat included messages threatening to attack the University of Malta and Malta Customs websites.
Times of Malta informed the police about those threats.
When contacted, a University of Malta spokesperson said there were no issues with their website over the past days.