20 Jul,2021


By Ranjona Banerji


Ranjona BanerjiThere are seminal moments in history when journalism is called to account. The Pegasus Project is one of them.


Sixteen news organisations are part of a worldwide media consortium called the Pegasus Project and include The Wire in India, the Washington Post, The Guardian, and Le Monde. The list of the hacked phone numbers was first accessed by Forbidden Stories, a French media non-profit and Amnesty International.


The revelations are shocking and frightening, especially for the several journalists on the list – 40 in India itself.


Therefore, we as a community have to call to account those amongst us who have who have dismissed the revelations of surveillance of citizens using military-use malware. This includes sections of the mainstream media which provide excuses for the governments using this malware. Made by the NSO Group and called Pegasus, this spyware is sold only to nations and not to private individuals. Thus, questions have to be thrown at the Government of India alone.


Since some of our journalist friends have followed the BJP government line that the Pegasus Project was revealed on the night of July 18, especially to derail the monsoon session of Parliament, let’s forget India for a moment, if that is possible, and concentrate on the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi and how Pegasus was used to spy on his family.



The Pegasus Project looks at 10 nations who have used Pegasus under suspicious circumstances.

The details are here:


https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/18/ revealed-leak-uncovers-global-abuse-of-cyber-surveillance-weapon-nso-group-pegasus


There are questions to be asked. When and to what extent can the State in a democracy can spy on people? What protection do our fundamental rights give us? Why is it necessary to use military spyware to snoop on journalists like Paranjoy Guha-Thakurta, Swati Chaturvedi, Rohini Singh, Sushant Singh, to name just a few, if not to check on anti-BJP stories they might be working on? Does the Government of India then work solely for the BJP?




The sort of dismissive arguments made have included:

1) This happens all the time. For journalists, this is a massive no logic argument because just about everything we present as news happens all the time. We might as well shut shop because you know everyday someone wins or loses a cricket match or a film tanks at the box office or people die or a bridge collapses or a government gets up to some chicanery.

2) Other governments have done it before. This excuse stretches back for millennia. Chanakya, who died in 283 BC, recommended spying. Thus, why should one discuss spying today?

3) Foreign media are out to discredit us. This is the usual excuse from media houses which have demonstrated almost no signs of journalism since the Modi government came to power in 2014.


Some of these dismissals are often a sign of sour grapes – why wasn’t I part of this? – but regardless, this is how journalism works. Someone breaks a story one day, you follow up the next. Especially a story as big as this:



Despite the fog around surveillance and the idea of national security, surveillance of the sort exposed by the Pegasus Project is illegal in India:



This analysis by the Internet Freedom Foundation on the Pegasus Projects explains the dangers of privacy invasion.



The analysis mentions ANI, the BJP’s favoured news agency which interestingly had the BJP government’s response to the Pegasus Project hours before the story broke on Sunday night.


I have been schooled on social media that this time-discrepancy is not relevant because it is accepted practice for newsrooms to ask for responses to things before they happen, and then carry these responses without question. In my limited understanding of how journalism works, I would say the opposite is true. You get a response to the question which you ask, and you question every answer you get from authority as rigorously as possible. Any amount of press releases may be sent to you at any time. There is no rule that says you have to believe all or any of them.


Anyone who accepts a government response unquestioningly is a government stooge and should shift to a government PR department.


Media organisations have come together and issued statements. But we need more. We need to be part of any legal battle that any of the 40 targeted journalists may want to fight. The right to privacy cannot be sold because a few amongst us have neither courage nor conscience.



Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She writes on MxMIndia every Tuesday and Friday. Her views here are personal


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