More than 40 Journalists among Indians targeted for surveillance by government

Breach of the constitutional guarantees of freedom and privacy

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Indian Express
Home page of The Indian Express on 19 July 2021 Screenshot

The Indian Express of 19 July 2021 reports that three of its editors — two current and one former — are among the over 40 journalists whose phone numbers figure in a leaked list of potential surveillance by an ‘unidentified agency,’ using the Israeli NSO’s Pegasus spyware. The paper cites a report that went live at around 930 pm Sunday on The Wire (thewire.in.) The Wire is one of the 17 media organizations, including the Washington Post and The Guardian, drawing and collectively checking leaked data accessed by the Paris-based Forbidden Stories organization.

The Pegasus software is sent to the cellphones of those targetted by various methods, including What’s App messages. It is then used to hack the smartphone for surveillance and tracking purposes. NSO claims the software is only sold to government organizations, just like armaments and weapons, and that it strictly monitors that it is used only for security purposes. The news reports of the leak say that ten Indian government security and police organizations were licensees or users of the Pegasus software.

Globally, the list of potential individuals targeted for surveillance includes 180 journalists. It also lists Roula Khalaf before she took charge as editor of the Financial Times last year. “The presence of a number in the database indicates its likely selection as a target for surveillance, but whether a phone was actually hacked and infected can only be established through forensic examination of the device – more easily done if the instrument in question is an iPhone,” reported The Wire.

The report also says that among the Indian citizens whose phones are on the list are two ministers in the central government, three opposition leaders, and various other activists and vocal or dissenting citizens. Most of the names were targeted between 2018 and 2019 — in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha general elections.

Among the journalists identified in the Express report are Hindustan Times executive editor Shishir Gupta, Sandeep Unnithan of India Today, Vijaita Singh of The Hindu, Rohini Singh, a regular contributor to The Wire, J Gopikrishnan of The Pioneer and freelance journalist Swati Chaturvedi. Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu, founder editors of The Wire are also on this list and it has been confirmed that their phones were in fact infected by the Pegasus hack.

The numbers of Indian Express deputy editor Muzamil Jaleel, who reports on Jammu and Kashmir and internal security, and Sushant Singh, who covered defence and security for The Indian Express when his phone was an alleged target, are also on the list. Singh left the newspaper in August 2020 when he was deputy editor.

The Indian Express’s senior assistant editor Ritika Chopra, who covers the Election Commission and the Ministry of Education, also appears in the leaked records. Chopra revealed the divide within the Election Commission over its response to complaints of poll code violations, including those related to then-incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then BJP president Amit Shah. For that work, she was awarded the International Press Institute (India) Award for Excellence in Journalism, 2020.

“The potential targeting for surveillance of our journalists is a breach of the Constitutional guarantees of freedom and privacy,” said Raj Kamal Jha, chief editor, The Indian Express. “These principles, affirmed time and again by the Supreme Court, are vital to the independence, dignity, and functioning of the press. The Indian Express Group is committed to defending these principles.”

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