The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs has found itself in august company on a Reporters Without Borders (RSF) list — that of digital predators that undermine press’s freedom. Along with the Home Ministry, Modi’s Yoddhas have also bagged the honour of using “digital technology to spy on and harass journalists and thereby jeopardize our ability to get news and information”. This list, which includes the Israeli spyware company NSO Group, is a list of companies and governments that present “a clear danger for freedom of opinion and expression” in 2020. India ranked 140 out of 180 on 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
“On World Day Against Cyber-Censorship [March 12], created at RSF’s initiative, RSF is for the first time publishing a list of digital entities whose activities are tantamount to preying on journalism.” — Reporters Without Borders
This list shows that countries with right-wing governments and extremist dispositions are more likely to harass journalists and use methods of state censorship to tamp down on dissent. Private companies that engage in surveillance, despite being usually based in Western liberal democracies, have clients in developing nations that almost always target dissenters.
Ministry of Home Affairs engages in state censorship
The Home Ministry completely disconnected fixed-line and mobile internet communication in Jammu and Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019. RSF has called this “an extreme measure preventing Kashmiri journalists from working freely and depriving all of the state’s citizens of access to independently reported news and information”. In November 2019, a group of Kashmiri journalists protested at the Press Club in Srinagar against internet blockade in the region. In January 2020, the Kashmir Press Club again protested against the internet shutdown and asked the government to restore internet services immediately.
Landline connections were restored in September 2019, a month after the communications blackout. A white list of 153 websites, that was later increased to 301 websites, was released in January 2020. It is only on March 4, seven months after internet was shut down in Kashmir, that internet services were fully restored in the state, but at 2G speeds. The army and law enforcement agencies also cracked down on the use of VPNs in the union territory.
RSF highlighted that India “most uses Internet shutdowns” as a tool of state censorship with 121 shutdowns in 2019. According to the shutdown tracker by SFLC.in, India had 106 internet shutdowns in 2019 and has already had 6 shutdowns in 2020. In January 2020, the Supreme Court of India ruled that the right to internet is also part of freedom of speech and expression, and an indefinite ban on the internet is an abuse of power.
As Indians protested against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019 and January 2020, the police and government authorities used internet shutdowns as a tool to curb protests across at least 9 different states. Even Delhi, the capital of India, was subjected to an internet shutdown in December.
Other compatriots of the MHA who engage in state censorship are: the Russian Federal Agency for Communications and Media Supervision (blocks websites and messaging apps), Iranian Cyberspace Supreme Council (gives selective access and control online, blocks news websites and social media platforms), the National Telecommunications Commission of Venezuela (blocks websites, platforms and apps), Cyberspace Administration of China (censors internet and supervises private platforms, blocks and deletes content and apps), and Egyptian Council for Media Regulation (blocks news sites and messaging apps).
Harassing journalists is Modi’s Yoddhas’ modus operandi
Modi’s Yoddhas harass journalists using “social media insults, calls for rape and death threats”. RSF describes them as “trolls who either volunteer their services or are paid employees of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party”. As per the list, Rana Ayyub is one of their “favourite targets”, as is Swati Chaturvedi, the author of I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army. In May 2018, human rights experts had called on Indian authorities to “urgently” protect Ayyub who had received death threats “following an online hate campaign”. The UN statement also referenced the brutal murder of Gauri Lankesh, that till date has not been resolved.
Modi’s Yoddhas are not the only harassers of journalists. Others include Kremlin’s troll army (defames, spreads false reports and videos, doxxes), Jair Bolsonaro’s “hate office” (social media campaigns of insults and threats), Algerian regime’s electronic files (doxxing, discrediting what journalists report, virulent comments, personal attacks and shaming), and Mexican troll gangs (social media smears, threats and insults).
Private companies engage in surveillance, too
The Israeli company NSO Group is among companies that uses spying and surveillance to target journalists. It had used a vulnerability in WhatsApp to plant Pegasus spyware in victims’ phones. Analyses from University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab and cybersecurity firm Lookout revealed that NSO had supplied spyware products to UAE, Saudi Arabia (potentially including Jamal Khashoggi through his associates) and Mexico. More than 121 Indians were targeted using Pegasus. Other companies engage in predatory surveillance called out by RSF are: Memento Labs (based in Italy), Zerodium (based in USA), Mollitiam Industries (based in Spain), and Gamma (based in Germany).