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After Paris complaint, Reporters Without Borders may file lawsuits against NSO Group in multiple countries

The Paris-based NGO along with two Moroccan-French journalists have already filed a complaint with prosecutors in Paris in the wake of the Pegasus exposé and possible surveillance of journalists. 

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is planning to bring a lawsuit against the NSO Group in several countries after Pegasus was used to spy on journalists across the world, Daniel Bastard, Head of Asia-Pacific Desk at RSF said in a television panel discussion. When Medianama reached out to Daniel to elaborate on his comments, he said, “It’s difficult to say for the time being since we are trying to foster a global response. We will continue to monitor developments and explore further routes to accountability.”

Bastard added that RSF will look to increase advocacy for a moratorium on the sale of spyware.

Why it matters? NSO Group is the Israeli firm behind Pegasus spyware authorised for use by only “vetted governments” against criminals and terrorists. On July 18, it came to light that journalists, activists, politicians, diplomats, scientists, and businessmen around the world had been listed for surveillance using the spyware. These revelations were based on investigations by an international consortium of 17 news organisations led by Forbidden Stories, and a forensic analysis undertaken by Amnesty International. 

What is RSF’s complaint about?

“We have filed a complaint in France first because this country appears to be a prime target for NSO Group customers, and because RSF’s international headquarters are located here. Other complaints will follow in other countries. The scale of the violations that have been revealed calls for a major legal response.” — RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.

RSF filed a complaint with prosecutors in Paris urging them to “identify those responsible, and their accomplices,” for the targeted harassment of journalists. The complainants also include two journalists Omar Brouksy and Maati Monjib who were targets of Pegasus. However, the complaint does not mention the NSO Group. 

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The complaint, which was drafted by RSF lawyers William Bourdon and Vincent Brengarth, cites:

  • Invasion of privacy (article 216-1 of the French penal code)
  • Violation of the secrecy of correspondence (article 226-15)
  • Fraudulent collection of personal data (article 226- 18)
  • Fraudulent data introduction and extraction and access to automated data systems (articles 323-1 and 3, and 462-2)
  • Undue interference with the freedom of expression and breach of the confidentiality of sources (article 431-1).

RSF aims to bring lawsuits in 10 countries

In a panel discussion on the Pegasus snooping scandal moderated by Parikshit Luthra on CNBC-TV18, an Indian business news channel, Bastard revealed that the RSF was in talks with its lawyers to bring a lawsuit against the NSO Group in Israel. 

“There are laws in India which protect journalists and they are not respected through the use of Pegasus so there is room for action in at least 10 countries,” he said during the panel discussion.   

The NSO clients who listed phone numbers for surveillance using Pegasus spyware, belong to 10 countries, namely:

  • Azerbaijan
  • Bahrain
  • Hungary
  • India
  • Kazakhstan
  • Mexico
  • Morocco
  • Rwanda
  • Saudi Arabia
  • United Arab Emirates

Journalists: a major target of Pegasus 

Most news reports have pegged the phone numbers identified as potential targets at 50,000 out of which journalists make up a significant chunk with more than 180 journalists in 20 countries being selected for surveillance with the Pegasus spyware. The revelations have also cast a shadow upon the high-profile murders of Jamal Khashoggi and Cecilio Pineda after the phone numbers of Pineda and Khashoggi’s wife were listed for surveillance. 

In India, according to a report by The Wire, 40 journalists were listed as targets between 2017 and 2019. The list includes journalists from nearly every major media outlet:

  • Ritika Chopra (Senior Assistant Editor), Muzamil Jaleel (Kashmir Chief of Bureau), Sushant Singh (Former Associate Editor) from the Indian Express
  • Siddharth Vardarajan (Founding Editor), M.K. Venu (Founding Editor), Devirupa Mitra (Diplomatic Editor) of The Wire.
  • Rohini Singh, Swati Chaturvedi, and Prem Shankar Jha who are contributors to The Wire were also listed. 
  • Shishir Gupta, (Executive Editor), Prashant Jha (former bureau chief), Rahul Singh at Hindustan Times
  • Vijaita Singh of The Hindu 
  • Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (Former EPW editor)
  •  S.N.M. Abdi (Former Outlook journalist)
  • Sandeep Unnithan (Senior Correspondent) at India Today
  • Saikat Dutta (Former senior editor at Asia Times)
  • J. Gopikrishnan (Former special correspondent at The Pioneer)
  • Smita Sharma (Former reporter at The Tribune)
  • Iftikhar Ghilani (DNA reporter)
  • Santosh Bhartiya (Former Lok Sabha MP and journalist)
  • Roopesh Kumar Singh (Independent journalist)
  • Sanjay Shyam (Journalist)
  • Jaspal Singh Heran (Editor of Punjabi-daily Rozana Pehredar)
  • Manoranjan Gupta (Editor-in-chief of Frontier TV)

What happened with Pegasus in 2019

Pegasus has been in the news for the same reason in the past. RSF included NSO Group in its list of “digital predators” in 2020 after it was revealed by Financial Times in 2019 that the spyware allegedly exploited a vulnerability in WhatsApp to inject malware into the phones of users.

According to Indian Express, WhatsApp had informed the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) that 121 Indian users were targeted by Pegasus through the vulnerability, adding “the full extent of this attack may never be known”. 

WhatsApp patched the vulnerability and had asked users to update to the latest version of the app, after which the social media platform filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group in the Northern District of California, accusing the company of sending malware to its users.

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