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.

ALSO READ: Pegasus, What’s New About It!

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”.

ALSO READ: Press Freedom In India Is A Myth

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?

Pegasus, What’s New About It!

Pegasus has hit the headlines everywhere. From France’s President Macron to India’s opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, politicians and celebrities are baying for blood. But of whose? It’s not clear. The Israeli cyber-arm firm NSO? The company only made the technology and sold it to countries to use for protection against ‘terrorists’ etc. NSO is not a country and cannot monitor or control who and how it is used once it is sold. Should people attack Israel? But NSO is a private enterprise. There is no international mechanism to monitor. So who?

That technology is advanced. That Intelligence Services have the means to get into people’s heads let alone phones is suspected by almost anyone with some knowledge of technology. So what’s all the fuss about?

The United States has been snooping, hacking, stealing data and conversations etc for decades now. How else do they know where ‘terrorist’ leaders are and which Dacha Putin is in or what is the source of sausages that Angela Merkel is having for breakfast.

That leaders of Al Qaeda and Taliban try to remain one step ahead by communicating through sophisticated traditional non tech methods is also well known.  How else would Taliban have chased the Americans out. Pegasus? ‘We have lived with Pegasus or its dad and granddad for decades,’ the Taliban might say.

It will not be a surprise if France was using some similar version of Pegasus to monitor its suspected terrorists, criminals, political trouble makers and possibly even minority groups. Sometimes technology boomerangs. What French intelligence services have been doing on others, yet others have been doing on Macron. Ah La Vache! Or Ooh la la, he is furious!

Pegasus has had its eyes on some leading British politicians, journalists and public figures. Possibly even billionaires. These people are lucky they have discovered the name of at least one technology source looking at or after them, depending on who is offering the narrative. Who knows which British Intelligence agency has also been keeping a tab on them, harvesting all their data, listening to all their conversation! Intelligence officers are the proverbial snoopy old lady next door with curtains drawn, looking through a chink. It takes a certain character to become one.

British intelligence infiltrates, snoops, hacks and sucks information from anything moving in UK including organisations representing disability, LGBT, children playing high tech games and even infants saying ‘boom boom’. That’s how little kids get thrown into ‘prevent’ programme, designed to flush out potential ‘terrorists’ and rewash their brains to become good royalists. Pegasus’s big Uncle, GCHQ, has been listening to everyone on British soil without warrants or legitimate reason. This country of privacy champions, likes to own everyone’s privacy. Just look at the number of snoopy cameras in any city, town and even village in UK.

ALSO READ: Chinese Spy Network: Thousand Grains Of Sand

The great Sultans of Arabia have acquired Pegasus from NSO through their previously public sworn enemy, Israel.  NSO would have had to have clearance from Israel Govt to sell the programme to them. The Arab countries have been busy hacking and listening to anyone suspected of being against them. But 400 British have been on the list of UAE Pegasus. Surely these illuminati were not secretly crusading and conspiring to overthrow the ruler of UAE. Perhaps another Government asked UAE to do what it wouldn’t by law be permitted to do. Now who could that be? Three guesses and you can have your name printed here without benefit of Pegasus.

But the Craft master is always ahead of the game. The company that made Pegasus must have a little programmed bot in there to hack and spy on all the Middle East Majesties that have bought the programme. So no need to send spies, the Middle East Kingdoms are probably sending info to Israel and even paying for it. That is smart capitalism.

Pegasus, the mythical winged horse, has travelled to India too in the form of high tech. Rahul Gandhi is moaning endlessly. Despite his voice becoming hoarse, he won’t stop accusing Narendra Modi of listening to his (Rahul’s) phone anywhere and everywhere he gets a chance to say so! Simple answer, stop talking on the phone.

Perhaps he should turn to his mum for an explanation. After all Pegasus’s grandfather was brought into India by his father, Rajiv Gandhi, and then later under the watch of his mum. Some ancestor of Pegasus has been in India in the hands of intelligence services for three decades at least. And Israel helped with the technology.

Sikh insurgents, Kashmiri jihadis, and many political leaders of movements perceived by the State as ‘terrorists’ have long known that their phones are hacked, their conversations are heard, their every movement is tracked by GPS.

It has been used, as every law and means in India has been used for 200 years (since colonial rule), to listen to and stifle the opposition. In fact, Kautilya recommended it to rulers 2000 years ago before it dawned upon Pegasus and India’s IB. All this happened during the Congress rule and it should be no surprise that it is happening during BJP reign. Pegasus in India? Well what’s new Rahul Gandhi? Either the family never told him at the dinner table, or he is just trying to political point scoring out of something that every ‘with it’ Indian knows.

Many Indians know that phones, TV, and other gadgets all get hacked and Indian intelligence services have had the technology first acquired by his father, Rajiv. KPS Gill boasted of it. It was used on political opponents then and it is being used now. It was his grandmother Indira who started using the civil service to do her bidding to remain in power. The current PM is only doing what the family started in the best tradition of Indian politics. Using Pegasus to harvest info on opposition, what’s new?