New Delhi: India has figured alongside China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) list of press freedom’s worst digital predators in 2020. The list by the global media watchdog includes countries where companies and government agencies use digital technology to spy on and harass journalists.
The list of digital predators, which has been released to mark World Day Against Cyber-Censorship, represent a “clear danger for freedom of opinion and expression, which is guaranteed by article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.
The 2020 list of 20 leading digital predators has been divided into four categories based on the nature of their activities: harassment, state censorship, disinformation or spying and surveillance.
The Paris-based watchdog also noted that private-sector companies or informal entities reflected the power wielded by such hidden actors through which investigative reporters and journalists were targetted. While some digital predators operated in predominantly despotic countries, others worked as private-sector companies in Western that specialised in targeted cyber-espionage.
Such agencies intimidated, harassed and attempted to censor journalists in different ways in addition to destabilising democratic countries by deliberately disseminating false information.
“The authoritarian strongmen behind predatory activity against press freedom are extending their tentacles into the digital world with the help of armies of accomplices, subordinates and henchmen who are organized and determined digital predators,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said and noted that at times, accomplices acted from or within democratic countries. “Opposition to despotic regimes also means ensuring that the weapons for suppressing journalism are not delivered to them from abroad.”
The RSF said that harassment of journalists in India typically included social media insults and calls for rape and death threats. It also noted that two prominent targets of such harassment included Indian journalists Rana Ayyub and Swati Chaturvedi. Ayyub, who has written a book on the 2002 Gujarat riots, detailed her experiences of online harassment in an article in the New York Times. UNHRC experts have previously urged the Indian government to provide protection to Ayyub in view of the concerted online hate campaign against her.
Chaturvedi, on the other hand, was awarded by Reporters Without Borders for her book I Am a Troll – Inside the Secret World of BJP’s Digital Army. In February 2019, five special rapporteurs of the UN wrote to the government of India expressing their concern for a series of threats, “including death threats”, on social media to Chaturvedi, “received in connection to her reporting” and “criticism of government policies”.
Under state censorship, the RSF took note of the Indian government’s inclination to resort to “disconnecting the internet” and made reference to the internet and communications blockade in Jammu and Kashmir that was imposed on August 5, 2019, which prevented journalists from working freely and deprived the state’s citizens to free access to information. The RSF also noted, “India is the country that most uses Internet shutdowns – a total of 121 in 2019”.
The list of digital predators also mentioned that Indian journalists including the RSF’s correspondent in India had been targets of spying and surveillance by the NSO group in Israel.
India has recently been placed, for the 12th time, on the Committee to Protect Journalists list of countries with worst records of bringing to book the killers of journalists. India was placed on the 13th position (among 13 nations which make up the list of the world’s worst impunity offenders) with 17 unsolved murders that occurred between September 2009 and August 2019.
A recent study conducted by Amnesty International India, found that in the run-up to the 2019 general elections in India, about 14% of tweets mentioning women politicians in India were abusive. Additionally, abuses faced by politicians who were not affiliated to the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party was even higher.
Other prominent countries that accompanied India on the 2020 list of press freedom’s worst digital predators included Russia for the Kremlin’s use of its “troll army” to spread false reports and videos and for blocking over 490,000 websites, Iran for its selective access to news websites and apps such as Telegram, Signal, WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, China for its internet censorship of private-sector platforms and deleting content and apps and the US, where information security company Zerodium sells information to third parties.