The National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ) and Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ), in a joint statement today, have expressed deep concern at the wider ramifications of the Pegasus deal not only for freedom of the press and independent journalism but also the sovereignty and integrity of the country. We note that a secret deal seems to have been entered into, at the highest level between India and Israel, which could have wide implications for India’s foreign policy and in particular its espousal of the Palestinian cause.
The recent report of the New York Times and the exclusive interview in The Wire today with Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman are alarming. Bergman, who has spent years covering Israel’s intelligence and military establishment and has followed the NSO Group since its inception in 2007, jointly reported last week’s explosive New York Times story with Mark Mazzetti on Pegasus, which they called the ‘world’s most powerful cyber weapon’. The investigative report clearly stated that India had purchased the spyware bundled with a $2billion arms deal with Israel in 2017. The Indian government has so far been evasive in all its replies to questions about whether it has bought and deployed the Pegasus spyware.
The statement by NAJ and DUJ President SK Pande, NAJ Secretary General N. Kondaiah and DUJ General Secretary Sujata Madhok, notes with grave concern that Pegasus is a spyware developed by Israeli company called NSO group which can be secretly deployed on mobile phones and other targeted devices. Once installed it can read messages, track calls, collect passwords and track locations. In short, Pegasus can not only harvest any data from the device and transmit it back to the attacker but also has the capability to activate cameras and microphones of the targeted device for real time surveillance, without the permission or knowledge of the user. Worse, it can plant false information on the target’s device.
There is a wide belief that only those countries having special relations with the United States and Israel get access to this military grade snooping technology. It is a matter of record that the Abraham Accords brokered by the Trump administration led to the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco recognizing Israel. Saudi Arabia too has excellent (under the radar) relations with these countries. As such it seems Arab unity on Palestine has been sabotaged in exchange for Pegasus.
In India, the alleged use of Pegasus to target and spy upon journalists suggests that this is yet another move to ensure a compliant media and pave the way towards state sponsored journalism. In India, among the journalists whose devices have been targeted are The Wire’s founding editors Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu, veteran investigative journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Sushant Singh as well as opposition election strategist Prashant Kishore among others. Probable Pegasus targets include a former election commissioner, former CBI director and two ministers in the Modi government. The name of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also figures in the leaked database. Presently a committee operating under the guidance of a retired Supreme Court judge is investigating whether the government bought and used Pegasus, and if so under what legal authority. It is expected to report back to the Supreme Court in the next few weeks.