Indian investigative journalist Swati Chaturvedi has faced harassment and threats for her reporting on the government and party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. So she wasn’t surprised to learn this week that her phone number was included in a list of 40 numbers belonging to Indian journalists who were selected as potential targets for clients of Pegasus spyware sold by the NSO Group. Not surprised – but still angry.
“I’ve never been attacked in this awful, feral way,” she said. Her anger isn’t directed only at the Indian government, which is the immediate suspect behind the operation, but also at Israel, the country from which NSO operates.
“It’s utterly shameful of the Israeli government,” she said. “Maybe it’s just business as usual for them, but when you sell military-grade spyware to someone as paranoid and arrogant as the Modi government, you weaponize our phones against us.”
Israel on Wednesday appointed an interministerial team to assess the reports published this week, following a joint investigation by 17 media organizations called the Pegasus Project, which said NSO’s software had been used against journalists, government officials and human rights activists in countries around the world.
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More than 180 reporters and editors from different countries have been identified on the leaked list of potential targets for NSO, and Indian journalists were among the most represented. Digital forensics conducted by Amnesty International’s Security Lab found that at least five of the phones were compromised by Pegasus spyware.
The leaked list was shared with the 17 news outlets by Paris-based journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International. NSO has rejected the reporting by the media partners as “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories.” They later said the list had “nothing to do with them,” and said the leak was tantamount to “randomly picking numbers from the phonebook.”
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For Indian journalists, the revelations seemed like a natural extension of the Modi government’s attacks on the media and other dissenting voices. Those on the list include investigative and political reporters and editors, but also those covering more seemingly innocuous beats like education.
Several of the journalists were associated with news website The Wire, which was one of the 17 media organizations collaborating on the Pegasus Project.
The Wire reported this week that most Indian journalists on the list “were targeted between 2018 and 2019 – in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha [lower parliament] general elections,” in which Modi was reelected.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta was investigating how the Modi government used Facebook to spread disinformation campaigns when his phone was potentially targeted using NSO’s Pegasus software. “I’m not surprised,” he said. “This government is not just intolerant, this government is particularly vengeful of those they perceive to be their critics.” Thakurta has been an investigative journalist for more than four decades.
“If we connect all the dots together,” he charged, “it’s very clear that NSO has a close association with the Defense Ministry in Israel, and the Israeli political leadership and the Indian political leadership. As well as the links between the two countries as far as supplies of military equipment and technology are concerned, they’re all very close.”
'Cancel the damn deal'
Sushant Singh, a journalist who covered defense issues for The Indian Express, was looking into a controversial billion dollar deal involving the sale of French aircraft to India when his phone was potentially targeted. On Monday, he tweeted: “The least that bloody NSO and Israel can do now is to immediately revoke India’s license of Pegasus and cancel the damn deal. There is enough evidence now to show violation of EUMA and contract obligations,” referring to the end-use monitoring agreement between the spyware group and its alleged Indian client.
Singh subsequently wrote in Foreign Policy that the Pegasus scandal “is no less than India’s Watergate moment. If India’s institutions fail to stand up and press Modi’s government for answers, it could well mark the demise of the world’s largest democracy.”
The Indian government has neither confirmed not denied using Pegasus. Instead, it has cited the lack of evidence connecting the leaked list to the government or Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
“Illegal surveillance is not possible in India,” IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw told the lower parliament on Monday. A few hours later, however, news broke that the phone numbers of both the minister and his wife were on the list.
Others from Modi’s party blamed the opposition and the “anti-India agenda” of foreign agencies. Modi’s right-hand man, Home Minister Amit Shah, called the Project Pegasus investigation “a report by the disrupters for the obstructers. ... Disrupters are global organizations which do not like India to progress. Obstructers are political players in India who do not want India to progress,” he said. The BJP especially pointed a finger at Amnesty International, which was forced to halt its operations in India by the government last year.
The Indian government claimed this week that the Pegasus Project reports “had no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties, including WhatsApp.” Yet last Sunday, WhatsApp head Will Cathcart tweeted that the investigation revealed what his company “and others have been saying for years: NSO’s dangerous spyware is used to commit horrible human rights abuses all around the world and it must be stopped.”
In 2019, in a lawsuit filed in a court in San Francisco, WhatsApp stated that Pegasus was being used to target journalists and activists in India. These included a group of activists – now known collectively as the Bhima Koregaon 16 (BK-16) – who worked with some of India’s most marginalized communities. The BK-16 have been incarcerated since 2018, accused of plotting to assassinate Modi – a charge global human rights’ organizations believe is absurd and fabricated to suppress dissent. Investigations have revealed that Pegasus was used to target lawyers and activists working toward their release.
Chaturvedi, who is based in New Delhi, is fearful of similar “malicious intentions” of the government against critical journalists. “The bar is now so low, we fear they will plant the same kind of malware as they did in the Bhima Koregaon case and put us in jail.”
She vows to continue doing her investigative work, even after this week’s revelations – and to find new ways to protect her sources from potential spying. “I have a lot of loyalty for my sources. I’d rather go to jail than reveal my sources,” she said.