The phone numbers of over 40 Indian journalists appear on a leaked list of potential targets for surveillance, and forensic tests have revealed that some of them were successfully snooped upon by an unidentified agency using Pegasus spyware, The Wire can confirm.
The number of former Indian Express journalist Sushant Singh appears on the list in mid-2018, at a time when he was working on an investigation into the controversial Rafale aircraft deal with France, besides other stories. Digital forensics conducted on Singh’s current phone showed signs of Pegasus infection as recently as earlier this year.
The Wire spoke to Singh about his work, the Pegasus Project and its impact, and what it means to know he was a target of surveillance.
Tell us a little about your background.
I was the Associate/Deputy Editor of The Indian Express from 2015 to 2020, after having served in the Indian Army for two decades. I taught at Yale University as a visiting lecturer in Fall 2019 and have been invited to teach again at Fall 2021. I am currently a Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research at New Delhi.
What is the work you were doing in mid 2018-2019 at the Indian Express that might have made you the target of surveillance?
In mid 2018-2019, while at the Indian Express, I was reporting on a wide range of stories. The main ones were on the Rafale deal (including the Julie Gayet film funding), the CBI controversy which led to the ouster of Alok Verma and Rakesh Asthana, the happenings at the highest levels in the Supreme Court, including disciplinary cases, elevation of judges to the apex court and Collegium meetings, and the Balakot airstrike of 2019. I was also awarded the Ramnath Goenka Award for excellence in journalism for 2018.
Forensics shows your phone is still being targeted. What could the reasons be?
If it is true that my phone is still being targeted, it could be because of my writings and reportage as an independent journalist in the national and international media where a lot of senior government and intelligence officials, military officers and senior members of the judiciary are in touch with me. Because of my association with Yale and the role at CPR, I also interact a lot with diplomats from various countries.
How do you think this knowledge of being placed under surveillance will affect your work as a journalist, and of other journalists who might fear being surveilled?
If true, it is a violation of privacy which goes against the Supreme Court ruling. Secondly, it compromises a journalist’s ability to report on matters of grave national importance in sensitive areas, particularly which require speaking truth to power. It creates an environment of fear and intimidation for both the journalist and her sources, placing them at grave risk. Moreover, it vitiates the reporting environment for the community of journalists if they fear being surveilled while discharging their bonafide duty. If the Fourth Estate can’t work in a healthy manner free of such extraneous pressure, institutions stand diminished and democracy eventually stands weakened.
Read The Wire’s coverage as part of the Pegasus Project here.