Pegasus and Beyond: Press Freedom at Stake

As a rogue religious fanatic stood outside Jamia Milia Islamia, gun pointed towards students, a Danish Siddiqui stood in his direct range to get the perfect shot. He wanted to document a story from the point closest to action. He told the Guardian once, “I shoot for the common man who wants to see and feel a story from a place where he can’t be present himself.”

Siddiqui is not alone. Often in crisis situations when the world runs away from a threat, journalists run towards it. Such madness. Such risks. Such passion. Consequently, when some don’t live to tell their stories, others take up their cause.

However, in the recent years a pattern has been observed – a rise in right-wing populist nationalism across the globe and an increase in intolerance towards freedom of speech and expression.

The last decade, in particular, has been chilling for the profession. In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, to never come out. Prince Mohammed Bin Salman told Bloomberg News that Khashoggi had left. It can safely be said that Khashoggi’s wife, who was waiting for him right outside, would disagree.

Allegedly, the currently infamous Pegasus spyware had a role to play. NSO (the company that owns the spyware) denies its use even as it says it doesn’t keep a list of targets – current and potential. How does one wrap their head around such conflicting statements?

Worldwide, 937 journalists have been killed in ten years. About 50 were killed in 2020 and 54 held as hostage in the same year. Some are missing. While journalists have been killed in cold blood, arrested for speaking out inconvenient truths and spied upon for decades now (maybe since the start of the trade), let’s not for one second feel that it is a normal order of the world – whatever it is that we are seeing right now, a lot of which is coming from conservative/right-wing populist and hyper-nationalist countries.

In Singapore, as the conservative centre-right party continues to rule, the “Switzerland of the East” has been painted black on the map of World Press Freedom Index. Journalists are sued left, right and centre and defamation suits are the order of the day. The cherry on the cake? Citizen Lab, the academic research lab that focuses on global security, human rights and communication technologies, found Pegasus infections here.

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The international organization protecting the right to freedom of information, Reporters Without Borders, says that this city-state is not far-off from China when it comes to suppression of Press. Self-censorship prevails and government decides what is incorrect in News. Words like democracy, press freedom, independence come to mind but not in a positive way.

Moving on. The United Kingdom, currently governed by the Conservative party, is considering changes to the Official Secrets Act of 1989 that could lead journalists reporting on matters that embarrass the government to be imprisoned for up to 14 years.  

Now, some would say that the core of journalism hinges on holding the government to account. The Home Office told the National that reporters would remain free to do so but it’s not yet clear how. The National Union of Journalists has responded with a staunch opposition, some calling it “actual fascism”.

But fascism comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it looks like a friend. Technology, for instance, has created immense sophistication in our lives. There is so much to be thankful for. But some of it is operating on legal and ethical boundaries of personal freedom and private lives and some of it has crossed those boundaries. Pegasus belongs to the latter category.

After the Pegasus scandal erupted, BBC reported that about 50 countries could be clients to NSO, the firm behind the spyware that can collect some of the most personal and private information of people it snoops upon.

It’s critical here to understand that its commonness does not make it ok for it to be used world over. It should become more alarming. The fact that there is a community killed, mutilated, and treated as dispensable and that it has been handling spyware attacks at the same time because it is so common is not ok. What’s needed is support for it to thrive and not vile programs used by vile governments for vile purposes.

This very community in its varied image (good, bad, and ugly) is a major pillar of any democracy. Snooping, especially, at the level that the Pegasus operates on – the excessive and unaccountable surveillance – is antithetical to the essence of democracy and to the spirit of journalism.

While some governments can use surveillance for national security, at one point it must show prosecutions that show actual breach of this security or an attempt to justify such action. It cannot be a “snoop till eternity and without any basis”.

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However, in India, the Pegasus scandal does not exist in a vacuum. There is a context to overall downgrading of press freedom. In 2020, India had slipped nine points in the press freedom index from 133 in 2016. That’s nine points in four years. Among 180 countries, we now stand at 142.

Our close neighbour Pakistan, which is ruled by a “centrist”, Islamist and populist party, ranks 145. It is also in the list of countries where infections associated with Pegasus operators have been found.

In India, though, the blow on this fourth pillar of democracy and subsequent fall in press freedom ranking is not in a vacuum. The assault on democracy has been duly noted and in the annual democracy index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2020, India slipped two places down.

What looks like a mere journalism problem to the world right now might be a bigger democratic problem and now would be a good time to focus on this deepening crisis of freedom of speech, overreach of power and sustained assault on a major institution defining some of the most influential global powers.

At home, we need the fix the Pegasus issue. Our government must come clean. Did they buy Pegasus? Did they use it? Yes or no, with or without proper authorization? It is confusing for the common man to understand why a government would not do it already but give logically erroneous responses like other countries do it too, it’s an attempt to derail the data protection bill (oddly!), and how our surveillance is never illegal (help us believe it?).

To wrap up, the list of countries with populist governments leaning to the right and allegedly using Pegasus is not as short as some would like. The declining press freedom in most of these nations is concerning. The relationship needs to be examined. But, before we root for an Orwellian world, knowing what’s at stake might only be proper. 1984, anyone?

RAvi Shaknar at PIB

Social Media Rules: Curtailing Whose Freedom?

Few would deny that the multi-millionaires who control social media outlets have garnered more power than is good for them or for ordinary citizens.

At first glance the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 introduced by the Narendra Modi government appears to be a brave attempt, where others have failed, to bring social media giants into line with other forms of publishing. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc have always insisted that they are merely platforms on which others publish material and so cannot be held responsible for any content that appears.

Public attitudes towards this hand-washing has shifted with the realisation of how damaging ‘fake news’, misogynistic trolling, racism and pornography can be not only to individuals but also to the body politic.

The advent of ‘social’ media has not only enhanced economic activity but also encouraged freedom of expression. It has democratised communication, bringing both heat and light to public discourse. But that invariably means that there is a dark side. There are plenty who will abuse this freedom and who do not or will not recognise that their rights extend only so far as they do not impose on other people’s. There are limitations to freedom of speech which it may require impartial adjudication in law.

One welcome element of these new Rules is the provision of a complaints mechanism, well-advertised and based in India, so that individuals who are maligned may seek redress.

The basis for such complaints has to be common terms of reference and the suggestion is that social media should comply with both the Press Council of India Code and the Programme Code of the 1995 Cable TV Network Regulations.

But that is one of the first major stumbling blocks. If the platform is not the originator of material how can the operators ensure that user-generated content is compliant? In effect they are being asked to take responsibility for literally moderating all material produced by people who may never have heard of these Codes and certainly will have played no part in devising them.

The new Rules require platform operators to advise users they must not flout the constraints placed on them by such Codes, and to swiftly remove content that does not comply, under orders from a court or a government agency.

And that is another major sticking point.

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While the Rules claim, without irony, to be introducing a ‘self-regulatory system’, ultimate power to both define compliance and determine what is and is not acceptable rests with the government.

This applies as much to professional purveyors of news as it does to user-generated content on social media.

Since it is never difficult to find someone willing to complain about items that are critical or in any way challenging of those in power, this has an almost automatic ‘chilling’ impact on publishers of news and views. Self-censorship is quickly seen as the route to survival, and ‘state security’ quickly supersedes the public interest. Autocratic regimes from Belarus and Egypt to Vietnam and Zimbabwe have demonstrated how effectively that can control the news agenda.

The Cybersecurity Administration of China may illustrate the value to power elites of an overarching regulatory regime, but in the murky world of online communications control of news need not be so overt. Ostensibly Vietnam’s Law on Cybersecurity is designed to prevent harm to ‘national security, social order and safety, or the lawful rights and interests of agencies, organisations and individuals’, but in practice it is designed to keep all online traffic in line with the government’s strictures.

Meanwhile in Bangladesh a draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) has been used since 2018 to clamp down on freedom of expression, with journalists jailed and assaulted for criticising the government. 

Something similar is happening in Myanmar where the military junta, not content with ‘disappearing’ journalists off the street, is working on laws to take charge of online content in its bid to crush opposition and identify its critics.

Many may feel relief that under Modi’s model, social media platforms will be expected to take down offensive or sexualised images, but few will happily concede that the government should determine what constitutes unacceptable or derogatory material. The use of key words to identify problematic copy is one of the easiest ways to monitor and thus control content, especially terms which might refer to government policies.

ALSO READ: Freedom Of The Press In India Is A Myth

The administrators of global social media platforms may not be best placed to handle the subtleties of cultural differences, but almost inevitably partisan government departments are certainly not the best arbiters of what is and is not acceptable in public discourse.

Having government officials determine those limits is seriously problematic, especially for journalists whose key task is to hold the powerful to account and to turn a spotlight onto the corrupt and the criminal. In a society riven by religious, political and caste divisions, the existence of both independent journalism and an independent judiciary is paramount to highlighting and determining disputes.

The Information Technology Rules 2021 may be a brave attempt to tackle issues that are perplexing societies around the world, but they are also a recipe for creeping censorship which requires robust scrutiny and resistance to ensure that a diversity of opinions and debate are able to flourish within and beyond the state.

There has been widespread criticism of Modi’s plan in the West, where efforts to control the internet without affecting online news content have also hit the inevitable obstacles.

The European Union is currently wrestling with the complexities of devising a Digital Services Act that will harmonise protection for citizens and consumers across 27 countries without curtailing press freedom. Journalists’ organisations have been vocal in their opposition to anything that might detract from their ability to scrutinise governments, investigate corruption and expose crime. They will be watching to see how their colleagues in India tackle the same issue.

(The author is a UK-based journalist and Honorary Director of The MediaWise Trust, a journalism ethics NGO)