New Delhi: Media bodies on Thursday condemned the alleged “surveillance mounted on Indian journalists, activists, ministers, parliamentarians and members of the judiciary” and demanded a Supreme Court-monitored inquiry into the Pegasus expose done by The Wire in collaboration with several other international media organisations.
The Press Club of India held a discussion with other media organisations on the explosive Pegasus revelations and demanded a parliament-mandated high-level and time-bound inquiry into the matter.
The press conference was attended by several senior journalists including Umakant Lakhera, president of the Press Club of India, general secretary of Editors Guild of India Sanjay Kapoor, The Wire’s founding editor M.K. Venu, veteran journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Santosh Bharti, Working News Cameraman Association (WNCA) president S.N. Sinha and veteran journalist Prem Shankar Jha.
Journalist Mrinal Pande, Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWPC) president Vineeta Pandey, Press Association president Jaishankar Gupta, freelance journalist Ram Sharan Joshi, and International Federation of Journalists general secretary in India, Sabina Inderjit were also present.
Press Club of India’s Lakhera began the press conference by saying that since independence, the “Snoopgate” is the biggest attack on Indians. “This is a direct attack on democracy. Democracy rests on four pillars, all of which are now in danger,” he said, adding that this press conference should be seen as a “symbolic protest” against snooping of journalists and activists.
The Wire’s Venu, who himself discovered that he was a victim of this snooping, said that he is a “happy victim”, because it is “acceptable to be a victim for speaking the truth.”
“This is not the first time that this government has targeted journalists. I see this Pegasus episode in a continuum of the kind of behaviour of the government at the Centre as well as the Uttar Pradesh government towards the media.” He added that the attack on the media has been “vicious,” “constant” and “unceasing.”
In his almost 40 years in media, Venu said, he has not seen the media’s liberty so much at risk. “In my view, this is an undeclared emergency. In many ways, this is even worse. At least during emergency there was no pretence. The government of today maintains that this is a democracy while at the same time crushing dissent in practice,” he added.
Venu further asked, “If the government claims that it wasn’t done by them, they should find out who did it. Why can’t the prime minister and home minister set up an enquiry to find out?” This is an issue of human rights, privacy and freedom, he added.
Editors Guild’s Sanjay Kapoor said that the Editors Guild fully supports the Press Club of India over its demand to seek a probe into the matter. “The only thing I am optimistic about after this expose is that now the government will have to change its ways,” he said.
He added that since this is a collaborative effort by The Wire as well as several international media organisations, no amount of “government pressure” will be able to “hide the truth from coming out.”
Veteran journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who also discovered that his name was on the Pegasus list, said that the time period when this was done was when he was pursuing a story on Mukesh Ambani. “The story is out there. The government could have simply read my story if they wanted details instead of snooping on me,” he said.
Further, he said that any Indian citizen’s tax money should not be going into “snooping” into its own citizens.
Veteran journalist Prem Shankar Jha said that there is a need to understand the difference between the use of Pegasus and other forms of surveillance. “Surveillance has always been there. The government has always kept a close watch on journalists but the difference now is that it is being done with the sole intention of crushing dissent,” he said.
Comparing India with George Orwell’s 1984 fictional nation, he added that there is a great risk that the government may misuse its citizens’ data to harass them and shut down dissent.
He also referred to Bhima Koregaon and said that “it is an example of how far the state can go to crush dissent.”
He added that it is not only journalists or politicians at stake, but the “entire future of the country is at risk.”
Journalist Santosh Bharati said that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government should reveal how Indian taxpayer money is being used, and then people should be allowed to decide the future course. “The public is not stupid,” he said.
WNCA’s Sinha said that journalists are not “scared”, but worried because as part of their professional ethics, they have a responsibility to protect their sources. “The government doesn’t want people who can tell the truth,” he said.
Mrinal Pande, former chief editor of Hindi daily Hindustan and Prasar Bharati chairperson, talking about the recent raids at Bharat Samachar and Dainik Bhaskar offices, said it didn’t “surprise” her, as she already knew this was going to happen.
She said, “The government and their top leaders are highly insecure people. Ordering raids into media organisations, booking journalists above the age of 60 for sedition [referring to her own case]… shows a lack of confidence and sense of insecurity.”
IWPC’s Vineeta Pandey said that the government must remember that “what goes up, also comes down,” indicating that “Snoopgate” will contribute to the “downfall” of the BJP in India.
The Pegasus Project is a collaborative investigation that involves more than 80 journalists from 17 news organisations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Read all our coverage here.