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'Grave Ramifications for India's Sovereignty': Journalists' Bodies Slam Pegasus Deal

The NAJ and DUJ expressed concern that the Pegasus spyware can not only harvest any data from the device and transmit it back to the attacker but can also do real-time surveillance.

Representational use only.

The National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ) and Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ), in a joint statement on Tuesday, expressed deep concern at the larger ramifications of the Pegasus deal for press freedom as well as the sovereignty and integrity of the country. 

Referring to the recent investigative report of the New York Times and the exclusive interview in The Wire with Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman, The journalists' bodies noted that a secret deal appeared to have been entered into at the highest level between India and Israel. They said that such a deal could have wide implications for India's foreign policy, particularly its espousal of the Palestinian cause.

"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 $2 billion arms deal with Israel in 2017," the NAJ and DUJ's joint statement said. They also underlined that the Indian government has so far been "evasive" in answering questions about buying and deploying the Pegasus spyware. 

During the Budget session of the Parliament, several opposition parties accused the government of perjury on the issue of Pegasus, adding that the Centre had lied in Parliament and to the Supreme Court.

In light of the NYT report, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi declared on Twitter that the Modi government has committed "treason". On the other hand, Union MoS Gen (Retd.) Vijay Kumar Singh and former Indian diplomat Syed Akbaruddin dismissed the report. 

In July 2021, names of several Opposition leaders including Rahul Gandhi, activists, and over 40 Indian journalists, appeared on the leaked list of potential targets for surveillance by an unidentified agency using Pegasus spyware, according to a report published by The Wire. Pegasus is a spyware developed by the Israeli NSO group; it can be secretly deployed on mobile phones and other targeted devices. After getting installed, the spyware can read messages, track calls, collect passwords and track locations. 

The statement signed by NAJ and DUJ President SK Pande, NAJ Secretary-General N. Kondaiah, and DUJ General Secretary Sujata Madhok, expresses grave concern that "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." The planting of false information has also emerged as a concern after a forensic report showed a similar thing had been done with computers of arrested activists in the Elgar Parishad case.

"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," the journalists' bodies said.

"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," they added.

On Monday, the Editors Guild of India urged the former Supreme Court judge R V Raveendran, who is probing the Pegasus controversy, to take cognisance of the New York Times report that claims the Narendra Modi government bought the Israeli spyware in 2017.

The Editors Guild said the probe panel should seek responses on affidavit from the Centre, comptroller and auditor general, and the secretaries of all the ministries that may have been involved with the alleged purchase of the spyware.

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