Press bodies, including the Press Council of India (PCI) and DIGIPUB, have condemned attempts to subject journalists to snooping using Pegasus, the surveillance malware designed by Israeli firm NSO, which it only sells to governments, not private players.
Aside from the 40 journalists who were targeted or were potential targets of the smartphone-based surveillance mechanism, the Pegasus peephole also looked into over 300 phone numbers of ministers, leaders of opposition, journalists, members of the legal community, businessmen, government officials, scientists, rights activists and others, as reported by The Wire.
A statement issued by the PCI on Monday said that it was the "first time in the history of this country that all pillars of our democracy — judiciary, Parliamentarians, media, executives & ministers — have been spied upon. This is unprecedented and the PCI condemns unequivocally," the press body stated, adding that the "snooping" had been done for "ulterior motives".
The PCI statement mentioned that it was "disturbing is that a foreign agency, which has nothing to do with national interest of the country, was engaged to spy on its citizens. This breeds distrust and will invite anarchy. The Govt should come out clean on this front and clarify."
In a statement, the DIGIPUB News India Foundation – a coming together of digital-only news publications – also condemned the "serious breach of law and of the privacy of mediapersons."
The body said that it "would indeed be a hollow democracy where journalists aren't able to do their work without fead of being constantly monitored by Big Brother or rogue actors. The impact of such illegitimate actions have a far reaching impact on not just the news media industry but the development and progress of any nation, especially one that celebrates democratic values."
DIGIPUB further urged media organisations to "continue to seek accountability and truth from the government."
The Wire was the India partner in a global investigative effort which involved 16 other international publications including The Washington Post, The Guardian and Le Monde. The investigation was conducted by Paris-based media non-profit organisation Forbidden Stories and rights group Amnesty International. The cues came from a leaked list of more than 50,000 phone numbers from across the world that are believed to have been the target of surveillance through Pegasus.
The website reported that forensic tests conducted as part of the media investigation project on a small cross-section of phones associated with these numbers revealed clear signs of targeting by Pegasus spyware in 37 phones, of which 10 are Indian.
The Wire said the numbers of those in the database from India include over 40 journalists, three major opposition figures, one constitutional authority, two serving ministers in the Narendra Modi government, current and former heads and officials of security organisations and scores of businesspersons, as also a sitting judge.
"This news report, thus, also appears to be a similar fishing expedition, based on conjectures and exaggerations to malign the Indian democracy and its institutions," the government's response to the story said.
NSO Group, the Israeli company which sells Pegasus worldwide, says its clients are confined to “vetted governments” reportedly believed to number 36.
The leaked data includes the numbers of top journalists at media houses like The Hindustan Times, India Today, Network18, The Hindu and The Indian Express, among others.
The Wire, however, has mentioned that the mere presence of a phone number in the leaked data does alone not reveal whether a device was infected. "Indeed, it is not possible to know whether their phones were targeted by Pegasus spyware... without digital forensic analysis," it said.
Forensic analysis has revealed that the malware targeted 37 phones.
With PTI Inputs