The Pegasus Project and the Challenge to Press Freedom in India

In times when freedom of expression and press freedom is facing a great challenge, the Pegasus Project took the world by surprise. On July 18, 2021, The Wire along with a global consortium of 17 media groups including The Washington Post, The New York Times and others released a leaked database of phone numbers of people who were targeted by clients of the Israeli NSO group using the Pegasus spyware. The Pegasus spyware is a military-grade spyware used to remotely hack into smartphones of individuals. The spyware provides with access to the contents of the phone, its microphone and camera, acting as a surveillance tool.

The Pegasus Project was coordinated by a French media non-profit, Forbidden Stories, along with Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Forbidden Stories had come into possession a list of phone numbers of individuals who were victims of this attack and shared it with 17 media houses across the globe. The Wire, an Indian media house, was also a part of this global consortium. The process included forensic examination of the phones that belonged to the people who were targeted for surveillance. In the snoop list, over 40 Indian journalists were present, alongside politicians, business tycoons, activists, students and other persons of interest. The journalists included top-level media professionals from Hindustan Times, The Wire, The Indian Express, News 18, India Today, Pioneer and many other freelancers.

On July 27, 2021, eminent journalist, N Ram, former editor of the Hindu and one who unravelled the Bofors scandal in the 1980s along with Sashi Kumar, the Chairman of the Media Development Foundation of which the Asian College of Journalism is a part, filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India seeking a court-ordered investigation into the Pegasus spyware revelations. The petition asked the Supreme Court to order the Government of India to reveal whether it had obtained a license to use the spyware and if it was used to carry out surveillance on Indian citizens. The petition also said the following, “The specific targeting of scores of journalists is an attack on the freedom of press, and seriously abridges the right to know, which is an essential component of the right to free speech and expression.”

Such surveillance becomes a violation of the fundamental right to privacy, and it curtails the freedom of expression, thus possessing as a great challenge to the Indian media. The list contained names of prominent journalists like Siddarth Varadarajan, M K Venu, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Sushant Singh. It also revealed that journalists from outside Delhi who had been working on social issues have also been targeted. For instance, Rupesh Kumar, a freelance journalist from Jharkhand, has also been a victim of this snooping activity. This limits the freedom of the press in India and should be considered an attack on the pillars of democracy. John Brittas, Member of Parliament of the Rajya Sabha, has also moved to the Supreme Court seeking a court-ordered probe into the snooping using the Pegasus spyware.

Sushant Singh, an army veteran turned journalist and a victim of the spyware attack said in a recent interview with The Wire, “It compromises a journalist’s ability to report on matters of grave national importance in sensitive areas, particularly which require speaking truth to power. It creates an environment of fear and intimidation for both the journalist and her sources, placing them at grave risk.”

The Press Club of India put out a tweet on July 19, 2021 that said, “This is the first time in the history of this country that all pillars of our democracy-judiciary, Parliamentarians, media, executives & ministers-have been spied upon. This is unprecedented and the PCI condemns unequivocally. The snooping has been done for interior motives.” The Editors Guild of India has also expressed their serious concern on the issue through a press statement.

In times of such great crisis, the threat posed to the India media is of grave importance and needs to be challenged. With media professionals across the country and the world uniting against this Draconian snooping that challenges press freedom, the necessity for answers and the truth soars. With more and more names of people targeted by the Pegasus spyware is being leaked, and the very idea of democracy being challenged, many questions remain unanswered.

By Vaidyanath Nishant. The author is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at vaidyanathnishant7@gmail.com

SC Bureau

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