Pegasus matter puts Govt in a PRESSure cooker situation

The Monsoon session of Parliament began on a stormy note amid jaw dropping charges of Israeli spyware aided phone hacking of MPs, ministers, businessmen, journalists and activists.

The allegations over the use of the malware, known as Pegasus, were published on Sunday as part of a global investigation by the Washington Post, the Guardian and 14 other media organisations, including The Wire in India.

As outrage built globally over the snooping scandal after a report alleged several governments, including EU-member Hungary, used an Israeli programme to hack the smartphones of journalists, government officials, and rights activists, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said the use of spyware against journalists is completely unacceptable. “Freedom of media, free press is one of the core values of the EU. It is completely unacceptable if this [hacking] were to be the case.’’

As the story unfolded and names of those snooped including Rahul Gandhi surfaced in public domain, the Congress called the snooping scandal “ treason” and “ total abdication of the “ national security by the Modi government.’’ The Opposition party said the PM owes the country an answer as to why it was spying on its citizens and political leaders and who in the Government of India purchased and deployed the illegal spyware ‘Pegasus’ . The Congress asked, “ Should the Home Minister Amit Shah in charge of internal security of the country not be sacked forthwith? Does this not warrant a full investigation of the role of the PM, Home Minister and others involved?’’

In an obvious reference to the Prime Minister, Rahul Gandhi tweeted, “'We know what he’s been reading- everything on your phone!’’

Speaking to FPJ, veteran journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta who is among the 40 journalists whose phone has been hacked, said that the digital surveillance imposes a grave danger not only to independent journalism but democracy in India as a whole. “ It impinges not just on individual privacy but impinges on independent journalism and what freedom of expression is all about.’’

Paranjoy said, “ I was contacted in March this year by a representative of Forbidden Stories who told me that my phone had been compromised and they wanted to do a forensic audit to let me know the details. It was only last night that I realized that Pegasus Spyware had been used. The story is still unravelling.’’

In a letter to the readers, Washington Post editor Sally Buzbee explained on July 18 the rationale of the newspaper devoting extraordinary resources to joining the Pegasus project.

“Digital surveillance pervades our society, and new technologies offer more power than ever to track every aspect of our daily lives. The danger of abuse has never been greater. The project was conceived by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based journalism nonprofit, which, along with Amnesty International, a human rights group, had access to records that formed the basis of our reporting: a list of more than 50,000 cell phone numbers concentrated in countries known to surveil their citizens and also known to have been clients of NSO Group, a private Israeli firm that is a worldwide leader in the field of private surveillance. NSO is the developer of Pegasus, a powerful spyware tool, and says it has 60 government agency clients in 40 countries, which it will not name. The company says that it licenses its software only to vetted governments and that Pegasus is meant to be targeted at criminals — drug dealers, terrorists, pedophiles — not ordinary citizens. The Pegasus Project examined the numbers on the list to identify dozens of smartphones belonging to journalists, human rights activists and others that were infected or subjected to attempted penetrations by NSO software. Although the purpose of the list could not be conclusively determined, it is a fascinating document. Out of the more than 1,000 identities that could be confirmed, there were at least 85 human rights activists, 65 business executives, several members of Arab royal families, 189 journalists, and 600 government officials and politicians, spread across more than 50 countries. The journalists include investigative reporters who have crusaded against government corruption while the politicians include leading opposition figures in countries with authoritarian leaders. Several heads of state and prime ministers were on the list.’’

The letter by the Washington Post editor, says, “Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International had access to the list. Based on our reporting with the consortium, we are confident that the material provides accurate and revelatory insight into the pervasiveness of private surveillance.

The Mumbai Press club tagged the tweet to PMOIndia and said, “We strongly condemn the spying on the phones of 40 Indian journalists, among others. ‘’ The Indian Women’s Press Corps in Delhi also demanded an independent probe into the matter.

The Press Club 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. What is disturbing is that a foreign agency, which has nothing to do with the national interest of the country, was engaged to spy on its citizens. This breeds distrust and will invite anarchy.”

—The writer worked with The Asahi Shimbun as Diplomatic Correspondent.

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