THE CITIZEN EDITORIAL | 19 JULY, 2021
Needed a full and impartial enquiry
Now it is Pegasus developed by Israel’s NSO Group . The latest in technology to hack journalists, and allow them to be placed under deep surveillance by governments though several, including India, have denied it. Surveillance and journalists go hand in hand, in that from the state intelligence, to the intelligence bureau, to the research and analysis wing, to revenue intelligence, to military intelligence, to Chidamabaram and Amit Shah’s favourite national investigation agency that can bypass states---hope we have got most of the agencies listed--- scribes remain a favourite target.
In this democracy the messenger is deeply feared by increasingly insecure and authoritarian governments and over the years an infrastructure created whereby independent journalists are brought under a system of surveillance that makes those in power feel more confident and comfortable. It does not take long for a journalist good at her job to rise from the levels of police surveillance and background checks to central monitoring. That phones are tapped, and journalists shadowed has been an accepted and yet abhorrent fact with Wikileaks and now the Pegasus revelations establishing an expansive global design and cooperation.
It is not a surprise that NSO Group is headquartered in Israel, a country infamous for its paranoia. Its successive governments have lived on fear and conspiracies, and used perceived and often non existent threats to build a surveillance system that makes a mockery of privacy, even as it attracts equally paranoid players to avail of its spyware.
That India is in the list along with Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Hungary, Morocco, Bahrain, and other such authoritarian regimes is a matter of regret and concern, the only big country and a recognised democracy really that has crossed from the acceptable into the intolerable,
The government has of course, totally denied the allegations exposed by Freedom Stories and the conglomerate of 18 media houses across the world. And insisted that it represents a democracy and has nothing to do with such activities. NSO Group itself has issued a denial and sent legal notices to Freedom Stories and its group of media houses.
However, all concerned have published the data that establishes surveillance through the Pegasus software on at least 180 journalists across the world. Of whom 40, and perhaps even more as all the results have not been verified, are in India. The list includes well known media houses like Indian Express, the Wire and others but also smaller, relatively unknown scribes.
That Pegasus is invasive and expansive has been established. The journalists targeted have spoken to the media detailing harassment, fear and intimidation from respective governments. And suspected high levels of surveillance as their activities and movements seemed to be known to governments. It is now known that Pegasus penetrated the telephones of Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancee, before he was brutally killed in his own country’s mission in Turkey. It was reported earlier that his close friend Omar Abdulaziz was targeted by Pegasus in the months before the well known scribe’s murder.
Governments are expected to deny their involvement. However Israel’s NSO Group has always maintained that Pegasus is used only on government orders and is not available to others. So the questions that arise and need to be answered both by the Israeli company and the government here are:
- It is clear from the records and examination of at least some of the phones of the journalists that these were Pegasus targeted. So who requisitioned it from India? And did the NSO Group bypass its own policy of not supplying the spyware to non-government actors?
-Even if one were to believe the GOI denials, surely as the government of a big democracy, it should have the answers now to :
a) who hired the NGO Group and why;
b) how did this extraordinary transaction involving a high security and intrusive spyware pass it by;
c) what is it going to do about its own gaps in the security system whereby private players (of course not the government) were able to requisition and apply such surveillance on journalists and bonafide citizens of India;
d) what is it going to do about the harassment and intimidation of the media through a foreign surveillance group?
This is a major intrusion, targeted at controlling the messenger. With what can be disastrous results as one has seen in the Khashoggi case. This spyware that controls the device altogether, also poses danger to the sources that journalists depend on. The use of Pegasus is condemnable and needs a proper impartial investigation, to be set up in consultation with the media and the Opposition. Silence and denials will not restore confidence and trust.