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Backstory: Like a Scalpel, the Pegasus Investigation Has Exposed the Cancer Within the Body Politic

A weekly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

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The Pegasus story is far from over and as it unravels, it keeps providing us with glimpses of the depths we are plumbing as a country and society. Not having the gift of hindsight it would be difficult to gauge where it will take us, but suffice it to say that like a scalpel, it has cut through the opacity of our political system and revealed a malignant cancer within.

The Wire – as one of the news organisations tasked with a collaborative investigation anchored by Forbidden Stories, the France-based publicly funded network of journalists working to support the work of other journalists, and with technical support from Amnesty’s Security Lab – took its responsibilities seriously. Coordinating with 15 other news organisations in 10 countries, it has since July 18 – when the story first broke – generated more than 100 Pegasus-related reports, analyses, explainers, most of them written by its staff and commentators, making up in reportorial prowess what it lacks in numerical strength.

Unlike in 2019, when the last time Pegasus made headlines in India, this time the list of those spied upon has increased not just in number; not just through WhatsApp but through direct forays on mobile phones; not just comprising journalists and human rights defenders, but those who could be considered among the pillars of Indian society and democracy. Seema Chishti, who reported on the Pegasus hack on WhatsApp accounts in 2019 for the Indian Express, points out in a recent piece for The India Forum, that while earlier “the government got away by deflecting attention”, today, given the prominence of those sought to be hacked, India’s democracy would have to pay a heavy price if the state is not made answerable.

The Wire’s body of work – print and video – on the Pegasus scam has been broad-ranging. On July 18, as the story broke, there was an explanation of what exactly was the journalistic labour entailed: identification and verification of the individuals to whom the revealed numbers belonged followed by a “forensic examination of the phones in use by them for the period covered by the data, which, in the Indian case was approximately mid-2017 to mid-2019” (‘Pegasus Project: How Phones of Journalists, Ministers, Activists May Have Been Used to Spy On Them’, July 18). Over the next 12 days, we have seen analyses (‘A Test for Pegasus – and Indian Democracy’, July 21), editorials and explainers (‘Watch: What Is Pegasus and How Can You Protect Yourself Against it?’, July 22), and some international reportage (‘Before His Election in 2018, Mexican President Was Encircled By a Massive Spying Campaign’), although there could have been more of this given the fact that a scam of these proportions also demands rigorous international remedy. There was in addition a detailed delineation of the evolution of this investigation (‘Revealed: How The Wire and Its Partners Cracked the Pegasus Project and What It Means for India’, July 30).

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

There has been coverage of responses from media bodies to an issue that crucially affects Indian journalism and journalists (‘‘Govt Should Come Clean’: Three Press Bodies Condemn Pegasus Surveillance on Journalists’, July 19) as also a fair summation of the Modi government’s stances (‘Government Cites Old RTI Response To Deny Pegasus Link, Says Media Didn’t Do Due Diligence’, July 18) and (‘BJP Fields State Leaders to Tackle Pegasus Allegations, Uses ‘International Conspiracy’ Bogey’, July 21).

But most crucial were the pieces that lent political context to the unfolding nightmare. The Pegasus investigation has provided important evidence of the extent to which the BJP and its governments at the Centre and the states have used surveillance and phone hacking for their political aggrandisement. In fact, snooping and hacking technology have become central to the government’s politics. So intrinsic has such technology become to decision-making, so used has the Modi government become to taking institutional shortcuts with the aid of data procured through dubious ways, that it has almost lost its capacity to play by constitutional norms. A commentator for The Wire is pessimistic about whether this government will ever extricate itself from the “quagmire of official illegalities” because of its fatal attraction for “outside the box” methodology (‘For the BJP’s Failed Chanakyas, the Allure of Pegasus Was Irresistible’, July 29).

Another opinion piece, ‘How Long Can India Ignore the Ramifications of the Pegasus Scandal?’ (July 29) argues that the Modi government, by sitting on its hands at a time when affected governments are rushing to investigate Pegasus impacts, is actually painting itself into a corner. One can only conclude that the same impunity which characterised its deployment of the spyware is now marking its preferred method of response: deflection, defiance and denial. It gambles on popular ignorance and indifference to issues of surveillance. It wagers on the hunch that freedom of expression, privacy, bodily integrity are arcane constructs that don’t connect with the everyday world of the ordinary citizen and voter. It also gambles on that giant liner on the political horizon – the unsinkable Narendra Modi – and is convinced that it will bail out all the tug boats in the Pegasus ocean that are in trouble.

Will such cynicism survive the Pegasus moment? Undoubtedly all countries need to protect themselves from threats to their national security. Intelligence gathering is innate to this process and could impinge on the right to privacy of some individuals. But this is precisely why such surveillance needs the strict oversight of parliament and the judiciary. Liberal democracies internationally institute at least four tiers of accountability for such interventions: parliamentary accountability; judicial accountability; expert accountability and complaints mechanisms.

In India, because there is none of this and its government and ruling party disdain such measures, we have the untenable situation where it is the security of the ruling apparatus that is paramount and has been made synonymous with national security. After all, it is the insecurity of the BJP government and the prime minister that sings out loud and clear when Ashok Lavasa, an election commissioner who had the moral integrity to call out Narendra Modi’s poll violations during the 2019 general election (‘Ashok Lavasa Placed on Snoop List as EC After Flagging Modi’s 2019 Poll Code Violations’, July 19) is snooped upon, or even a private citizen like Jagdeep Chhokar comes under the net for his efforts as co-founder of Association for Democratic Reforms to make the election system more accountable.

Without such oversight, the police and intelligence services can transmogrify from genuine apparatuses working for national security into personal lapdogs of the government and party in power. Even a parliamentary discussion on these very serious issues is being fobbed off and Members of Parliament seeking to raise them on the floor of the House are painted as enemies of the state and disrupters of parliament.

An effective pushback against such governmental impunity and arrogance would need the power of the people. The outrage over illegal surveillance must go beyond opposition parties and a few public commentators and observers to become a mass movement. As we have seen in case after case in the Pegasus scam, this is no abstruse issue. It has consequences not just for our liberties but for life itself (‘Hacking Software Was Used to Spy on Jamal Khashoggi’s Wife Months Before His Murder’, July 18). Shoshana Zuboff talks in her book of surveillance capitalism but its frequent partner – surveillance government – is also a Big Other. She writes about how surveillance capitalism “outruns society and law in a self-authorized destruction of the right to sanctuary”. What is this right to sanctuary? It is the right to remain private; it is the right to the protection of a space called “home”, where as she puts it, “we first learnt to be human”. If the walls of this home are torn down, if cameras invade this space, it is our right to being a human being that is destroyed. We have, all our lives, instinctively internalised this right to sanctuary without having a name for it and now we have a Supreme Court verdict that provides a legal framing for it. With the Pegasus expose, the time has come to internalise this right in our democratic functioning. The BJP government’s intransigence cannot be allowed to stop us.

Illustration: The Wire

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Islamophobia and misogyny ride the internet

How do we make the internet a safe space for women? This question assumes urgency after the extremely ugly, misogynist projection of Indian Muslim women on an app, ‘Sulli Deals’, that was hosted on the San Francisco-based GitHub Inc (‘Act of Intimidation and Harm’: Rights Activists on ‘Sulli Deals’ App Targeting Muslim Women’). Details and images of 80 Indian Muslim women, culled from their social media accounts, were put out in a supposed “auction”, complete with a “Deal of the Day” feature.

The identities of the creators of this app are still not known. The Delhi Police, while it has filed a case, has not named them. It remains a case against “unknown persons”.  More recently, 56 MPs, cutting across party lines, have written to the Union home minister Amit Shah, demanding an investigation and punishment for the offenders.

What about GitHub, the platform that hosted the app? Set up in 2008, it has a tidy revenue stream. Perhaps it is because of this that it has moved extremely cautiously on the issue with its present CEO Erica Brescia, doing only the barest minimum. She tweeted that the app has been taken down, but there has been no formal response on this from GitHub, and no attempt to reveal who the criminals who put up the app were. In other words, those behind the app seem to have made a clean getaway and will probably use their malicious talent to create content of this kind in the future.

The man who is widely regarded as the creator of the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee, has expressed his concern over the way the net has come to be used as a tool of gender exploitation and repression. In a letter written last year which appeared on the website of the World Wide Web Foundation, he came to the conclusion that the net is not working for women and girls, especially women from LGBTQ+ communities and those marginalised by race and location. The three aspects that worried him specifically were lack of access; algorithms used by artificial intelligence systems that reproduce and deepen existing inequalities and, finally, safety concerns with online violence. Lack of safety also translated, he noted into sexual harassment, including “private images being shared without consent”.

The impacts all this has on the lives of women are multifold, ranging from fear, anger, and disbelief to a feeling of being violated. As Noor Mahvish, a student – one of the three women interviewed by The Wire (‘Watch | ‘Our Humanity Is Snatched Away From Us’: Muslim Women Speak Out Against ‘Sulli Deals‘, July 13) puts it, “Today Muslim women are being sold like clothes on the internet.” She also points to the Islamaphobia that infuses such content and the intrinsic connection between online apps of this kind and offline crimes against women.

Remember colleagues under attack

As many as 228 Indian journalists have been targeted by both state and non-state actors in the year 2020, according to the National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ) and the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ), quoting data put out by the Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG).

They were attacked offline and online, they had FIRs lodged against them and some of them were jailed under draconian laws like the UAPA and NSA. Thirteen journalists were killed. In this list of targeted journalists were 12 women who were not just trolled online but had to face threats of violence, rape and murder. Freelance Kashmiri woman journalist, Masrat Zahra, had charges of UAPA brought against her. Currently in Germany, she has accused the J&K Police of targeting her parents because of her work (‘Kashmiri Journalist Masrat Zahra Claims Police Assaulted Her Father’, July 29).

NAJ and DUJ have demanded the quashing of all frivolous FIRs against journalists and a speedy trial for those embroiled in serious cases. They also call for a special law for the protection of journalists and their right to investigate, report and comment freely and fairly.

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Readers write in…

Elgar Parishad detenues deteriorate and their endless trauma 

Writes Meena Kandasamy, well known author and activist: “As you may be aware, the incarcerated in the Bhima Koregaon-Elgar Parishad case have been languishing in jail for over three years even as trial appears a distant dream. While their health deteriorates rapidly, the threat of COVID-19 is ever present inside over-crowded jails. Six out of the 16 have contracted the virus at least once. Father Stan Swamy’s passing in custody was an egregious violation of the right to life amounting to institutional murder. While access to medical care and counsel are denied, the so-called evidence on the basis of which they remain behind bars has been revealed to be a criminal fabrication that has been systematically planted on their digital devices over many years. With the latest revelations on Arsenal’s findings, this continues to be a period of immense anguish for the families of the incarcerated even as they stand vindicated. We wish to demonstrate our collective solidarity with them and have also issued a public statement demanding the immediate and unconditional release of the incarcerated. We hope this will inspire and give strength to more and more people to come together against this climate of fear and demand justice for every political prisoner.”

The 16 arrested in connection with the Elgar Parishad case. One of them, Father Stan Swamy, passed away in custody. Photo: The Wire.

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How is the NSO any different from the KGB?

Ramana Murthy, a reader of The Wire, based in Hyderabad: “It is almost certain that this government has bought and/or authorized the use of Pegasus. Now, whatever undemocratic actions have been taken by governments in the past, Pegasus is at another level altogether (‘Pegasus Project: 155 Names Revealed By the Wire on Snoop List So Far’, July 27). How is NSO different from the KGB or CCP? Shudder to think of what comes next and what will happen in 2024. We are already getting indications in UP in the form of poll preparations for 2022. Who should bear the blame for this situation: the present regime or the people who are solidly behind it?”

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Go for the big guns

Shantanu Guru has some observations to make on the film industry-pornography nexus: “It’s good news that after the Narcotics Control Bureau has caught drug peddlers Mumbai, Raj Kundra has been arrested for his involvement in a pornography video racket (‘Businessman Raj Kundra Arrested in Porn Films Case’, July 20). It appears that the entire film industry in Mumbai is in the gutter. The question is when will the real biggies of Bollywood – many of them A-listers – get caught? All I would like to tell the regulatory and policing authorities is to get to work on this fast. Jai Hind!”

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The site hangs

Lizzie Mathias from Udipi has a glitch to report: “I am an avid reader of your news portal and it was a smooth reading. But of late when I open the site it hangs and I have to close the app and miss important articles. I find there is no way I can upgrade it. What should I do?”

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in.