Pegasus snoopgate revelations strengthen reports of Modi govt’s antipathy towards independent media

In 2020, a roadmap was chalked out by a group of ministers (GoM) to “neutralise” independent news media, as per a leaked document and a report carried by The Caravan magazine

Representative Image
Representative Image

Arun Srivastava

It is a good omen that the Supreme Court has agreed to the fact that the allegations of snooping through Pegasus spyware are serious if media reports regarding it are correct in the course of the hearing held on Thursday.

While hearing pleas seeking an independent probe into the alleged Pegasus snooping matter, a bench of Chief Justice N V Ramana observed: "Reports of snooping came to light in 2019. I do not know whether any efforts were made to get more information”.

Some stray incidents had surfaced, but in 2019, no one could have imagined that the political establishment of the country would spy on its own people. Further, the scandal would not have got exposed if the consortium of 16 media outlets had not taken the initiative to expose the truth.

The Editors’ Guild and other journalists have challenged the constitutional validity of Section 5 of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885; Rule 419A of the Indian Telegraph Rules, 1951; Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000; and the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009. These provisions permit the government to intercept the electronic devices of citizens subject to various safeguards.

But if the snooping was done under the provisions of these laws, then there was no need for the government to pretend that it wasn’t even aware of the operation.

The question is, why is the Modi government not coming clean in the matter? Moreover, if it has not ordered the snooping, then why can’t it launch a probe into the matter?

The Modi government has so far resisted the Opposition’s demand to discuss the issue in Parliament and refused to acknowledge or deny whether it had bought the Pegasus software which can only be accessed by governments or government-run agencies.

The media consortium has exposed that over 300 verified Indian mobile phone numbers were on the list of potential targets for surveillance using Pegasus spyware. An old phone number of a former Supreme Court judge Arun Mishra and the numbers of two officers of the Supreme Court registry are on the list, as per The Wire news portal.

What fuels suspicion about Modi government’s intentions is the deliberation reportedly held amongst a group of Union ministers to keep a watch on the media.

Nine ministers, including Smriti Irani, S. Jaishankar and Ravi Shankar Prasad, Prakash Javadekar – the latter two were dropped in the Cabinet reshuffle held recently – were reportedly involved in the exercise that culminated in a 97-page report written after consulting leading figures from the media and industry. The report, which caused a stir when it was first reported by Caravan Magazine, revealed how the Modi government mistrusts the press and looks upon it as an adversary dominated by its enemies.

The then Law & Justice Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had observed, “We should have a strategy to neutralise the people who are writing against the government without facts and set false narratives / spread fake news”.

Interestingly, Smriti Irani suggested, “We should track 50 negative and 50 positive influencers.”

“A list of media personnel and prominent persons, who are pro our line of thought – both nationally and globally, should be prepared,” added Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Union Minister of Minority Affairs.

Surya Prakash, former chairman of Prasar Bharati, reportedly said, “Pseudo-secularists were marginalized earlier. The problem is starting from them. Indian Government has enormous power to utilise the position to control them.”

The Group of Ministers’ report hinted “at increased surveillance and targeting of writers and journalists who depart from the government’s narrative,” the Editors’ Guild had said.

The fact that the Group of Ministers (GoM) held six meetings, which included in-person interactions and video conferences with leading journalists and industrialists and had a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is an indication of how worried the Modi government is about its media image.

“News to carry a mixture of truth and untruth,” was the Orwellian suggestion from S. Gurumurthy, co-convenor, Swadeshi Jagran Manch and editor, Tughlak magazine. Gurumurthy also suggested the government needed to “distinguish between mass communication and elite communication.”

Jaishankar had suggested that special care should be taken for the foreign media. “We should prepare separate, appropriate and different narrative for international media,” he said.

The committee pointed out, “Steps have been taken to ensure that the news reporting on digital media is not biased primarily due to its foreign investment component. It has been decided to cap the foreign investment to 26 per cent and the process to implement the same is underway.”

In the backdrop of these revelations, it is evident that the Modi government has been keen to use its intelligence resources to track the movement of prominent journalists and keep a watch on them. The Pegasus seems to have been one such weapon in its arsenal.

Even after two election wins, the second bigger than the first, the Modi government has been striving to boost its image and ‘combat’ what it believes is a “pseudo-secularist” hold on the media that colours reporting on its actions.

An insight into the Pegasus snooping row would reveal that almost all the journalists that have allegedly been under surveillance are perceived as ‘secularists’.

A non-government organisation, The Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms (CJAR) also expressed fears that the alleged surveillance operation may have involved an attempt at blackmailing judges.

“Phone hacking via Pegasus could have been an attempt to collect personal information of judges without their knowledge, or like with the Bhima Koregaon activists and lawyers, an attempt at implanting compromising information on the phones of the judges, either of which might have been attempted with a view to blackmail such judges,” the CJAR said.

The NGO said, “This would per se be an attack on the independence of the judiciary that requires a response from the highest court in order to get to the truth of the matter and address the public’s concerns about such illegal attempts to compromise its independence”.

Modi government has been using central agencies like NIA, CBI and ED to terrorise people who are opposed to the rightist approach and ideology of the government.

The Supreme Court should ask the government to furnish all the information and at the same time also set up a special investigation team of independent and credible investigators, headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, to inquire into these allegations of phone hacking.

(IPA Service)

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