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by Jakob Staubmann

When a joint investigative report published by Amnesty International and The Washington Post in December 2023 revealed that journalists in India were being targeted by Pegasus, a cyber weapon developed by the Israeli company NSO Group, it sent shockwaves through the media industry. The report highlighted the extent to which journalists’ phones were hacked, their private data collected, and their activities monitored, all without their knowledge or consent.

One of the journalists affected was Siddharth Varadarajan, the founding editor of The Wire. Varadarajan, who had previously been targeted by Pegasus in 2021, expressed his lack of surprise at finding his name on the spy list. He stated, “Given the current situation, I was not shocked when my name appeared on the spy list. What really angers me is that the authorities are still going after journalists for doing their work.”

The investigation revealed that more than 300 phone numbers in India, including those of journalists, activists, opposition politicians, and other individuals considered threats to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, were on the list of individuals monitored by Pegasus agents. This revelation has once again raised concerns about the freedom of the press and the erosion of privacy rights in India.

For years, the Indian government has faced accusations of using hacking software against opponents and adversaries. In 2018, Pegasus was reportedly deployed to eavesdrop on Dalit activists and supporters involved in violence in Bhima Koregaon. The use of spyware against journalists and activists not only undermines their ability to do their work but also infringes upon their fundamental right to privacy.

The Pegasus scandal has reignited debates about privacy and the decline of press freedom in India. The country’s rating in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index has fallen from “problematic” to “very poor.” Journalists like Varadarajan and Swati Chaturvedi, an investigative journalist and author who was also targeted by Pegasus, feel that the government has stripped away their privacy and subjected them to constant surveillance.

Chaturvedi, who has faced trolling and threats on social media, emphasized that journalists do not sign up for this kind of abuse, especially in a democratic system. The harassment and intimidation faced by journalists in India, coupled with the lack of accountability for the use of spyware, create a hostile environment for the practice of journalism.

Since the revelations of the Pegasus project, digital rights experts and opposition parties have called for the government to take responsibility and propose legislation addressing data protection and privacy rights. However, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has dismissed the findings as a conspiracy and shown a lack of transparency in addressing the issue.

The lack of judicial and legislative oversight has allowed the government to evade accountability and continue using spyware without facing any consequences. The Indian Supreme Court formed a technical committee to investigate the 2021 Pegasus discoveries, but its findings were hidden and never published, raising concerns about the transparency of Indian institutions.

As a result of the increasing threats to press freedom and the lack of privacy, journalists in India are finding it more difficult than ever to do their work. The fear of being surveilled and harassed has led many journalists to be cautious about using mobile phones while working.

The Pegasus spyware scandal has exposed the vulnerability of journalists and the erosion of press freedom in India. The government’s use of spyware to target journalists not only violates their privacy but also hinders their ability to hold power accountable and inform the public. It is crucial for the Indian government to address these concerns, protect journalists, and uphold the principles of a free and independent press.

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