Over 300 mobile numbers belonging to ministers, opposition leaders, journalists, activists, businessmen, and government officials were reportedly targeted or listed as potential targets of surveillance.
On Sunday, it emerged that several Indian journalists, activists, politicians, and their acquaintances may have had their communications targeted for interception. Here is what the targets so far are saying.
- Rahul Gandhi, Former President, Indian National Congress: Gandhi told The Wire, “Targeted surveillance of the type you describe whether in regard to me, other leaders of the opposition or indeed any law-abiding citizen of India is illegal and deplorable. If your information is correct, the scale and nature of surveillance you describe goes beyond an attack on the privacy of individuals. It is an attack on the democratic foundations of our country. It must be thoroughly investigated and those responsible be identified and punished.” Gandhi said that he suspected such interception attempts and would frequently change his number and devices to thwart interception.
- Prashant Kishor, Political Consultant: “If the use of such methods during Bengal elections are taken as test case then it is quite clear that such things hardly have any impact on the electoral outcome. Having said so, there is no denying that those who would did so were looking to take undue advantage of their position of power with the help of illegal snooping,” Kishor told The Wire.
- Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Journalist: “I got to know that my phone was compromised a few months ago. Three months ago in March, a representative of Forbidden Stories [which led the Pegasus Project] came to meet me and told me that they wanted to examine what was inside my phone. Initially, I was reluctant, then I agreed. I gave it to them, and then there were two others from Paris who went into great detail, and they explained to me, that in the months of April, May, and June 2018, my phone had been compromised. They asked me, what were you working on those days? I said, I was working on an article with a colleague about how one of India’s richest men, who’s passed away, his foreign asset had been moved from one tax haven to another tax haven. I was also working on a book on Facebook’s activities in India. So I was not surprised that my phone might have been tracked. What I was surprised by– I thought that the iPhone was difficult to infiltrate, but they’d been able to do that. And though the Israeli company NSO is denying everything, there’s something very clear: this software is available only to government agencies. We don’t know which ones, but if they’re spending our money, the taxpayer’s money, to spy on us, that’s terrible. Are all these [unclear] journalists, are they guilty of some heinous crime, are they compromising the security of the country? Most importantly, has permission from the Secretary of Home Affairs been taken? There are many unanswered questions,” Thakurta told NDTV.
- Sushant Singh, Former Associate Editor, The Indian Express: In an interview with The Wire, among other things, Singh said: “If it is true that my phone is still being targeted, it could be because of my writings and reportage as an independent journalist in the national and international media where a lot of senior government and intelligence officials, military officers and senior members of the judiciary are in touch with me. Because of my association with Yale and the role at CPR, I also interact with a lot with diplomats from various countries.” He added, “If true, it is a violation of privacy which goes against the Supreme Court ruling. Secondly, it compromises a journalist’s ability to report on matters of grave national importance in sensitive areas, particularly which require speaking truth to power. It creates an environment of fear and intimidation for both the journalist and her sources, placing them at grave risk. Moreover, it vitiates the reporting environment for the community of journalists if they fear being surveilled while discharging their bonafide duty. If the Fourth Estate can’t work in a healthy manner free of such extraneous pressure, institutions stand diminished and democracy eventually stands weakened.”
- Siddharth Vardarajan and MK Venu, Founding Editors, The Wire: “You feel violated. This is an incredible intrusion and journalists should not have to deal with this. Nobody should have to deal with this, but in particular journalists and those who are in some way working for the public interest,” Varadarajan told The Guardian. “I hope testing for spyware in a phone becomes as universal & available in future as the RTPCR test for Corona virus! The service provided by Amnesty Technology Lab & The Citizen Lab, Toronto University must be reached easily to every citizen for privacy protection. Just a [thought],” Venu tweeted.
- Rohini Singh, Journalist, The Wire: “I was targeted through the Pegasus spyware after my Jay Shah and Nikhil Merchant stories and while researching my story on @PiyushGoyal’s shady dealings. I would urge the government to stop reading my conversations and instead read my stories and try to get it’s house in order,” Singh tweeted.
- Gagandeep Kang, Virologist, Ex-Officio Member, Strategic Advisory Group of Experts, World Health Organization: “I have no clue why anyone would be interested in anything I do. I study diarrhea which I think is important, but few other people even in healthcare are interested in it,” Kang told India Today. She said she may have been under surveillance due to her efforts to get more collaboration on a Nipah virus vaccine in 2018. “I don’t know if this is something to worry about. I do nothing controversial. I am just a clinical scientist focused on public health research,” Kang said.
- Swati Chaturvedi, Journalist: “My investigative book on the BJP’s secret digital army exposed the Modi government attacking citizens in a democracy… I take Modi’s illegal surveillance as a compliment to the investigative journalism I do,” Chaturvedi said in one of her tweets.
- Vijaita Singh, Journalist, The Hindu: “My job is to continue [doing] stories… News doesn’t stop, stories should be told as they are, without suppressing the facts or with any embellishment,” Singh told The Wire. “It is not “appropriate to hazard a guess” as to why she was targeted for surveillance. “Whatever information we gather is in the newspaper the following day.”
- J Gopikrishnan, Special Correspondent, The Pioneer: “Being a journalist, I contact many people and [there are] many [who] want to know who all I contact,” Gopikrishnan told The Wire.
- Iftikhar Gilani, Former Reporter, DNA: “I didn’t know I am so important that Indian and Israeli intelligence will waste time, resources, and energy to record my phone,” Gilani said.
- Roopesh Kumar Singh, Independent Journalist: “I have always known that I am being watched, especially after a 2017 story about the killing of an innocent Adivasi by the Jharkhand police,” Singh told The Wire. “The police planted […] explosives” that were found in his possession and for which he was arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, but was released after six months because the police did not submit a chargesheet. “It was an attempt to intimidate me because of my reporting.”
- Jaspal Singh Heran, Editor in Chief, Rozana Pehredar: Any and all surveillance of journalists is “shameful,” Heran told The Wire. “They don’t like it if we are critical of the direction in which this country is heading under their leadership. They try to silence us.”
- Prem Shankar Jha, Journalist: “Given the abandon with which this government is abusing the Indian constitution to incarcerate its staunchest defenders, I am torn between considering this a threat and a compliment,” Jha told The Wire.
- Muzamil Jaleel, Chief of Kashmir Bureau, The Indian Express: “I did not know about this. But if you have it from reliable sources, it’s a matter of serious concern,” Jaleel told The Wire.
- Jagdeep Chhokar*, Co-Founder & Trustee, Association for Democratic Reforms: “I really do not know [why], except perhaps that I have been working to improve democracy and governance in the country for the last 20 years, and that sometimes requires criticising the government of the day and/or various political parties,” Chhokar told The Wire. “I guess the powers that be do not appreciate any interference in the electoral process which, possibly, they have learnt to deal with, with some degree of success, and would not want anything changed.”
Ashok Lavasa, a Former Election Commissioner of India, refused to comment to The Wire, as did Ritika Chopra, an Indian Express reporter who covers the Election Commission. A former Supreme Court employee who faced reprisals for sexual harassment allegations against former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi also refused to answer questions on the revelation. The Wire reported that these people’s numbers may have been targeted for interception. We were unable to reach national security reporter Saikat Datta for comment.
*Disclaimer: Jagdeep Chhokar is related to Nikhil Pahwa, founder and editor of MediaNama
Update (July 20, 11am): Added comment from virologist Gagandeep Kang.