(This story was first published on 27 July 2021 and is being republished in light of the Supreme Court hearing a batch of petitions regarding the recent revelations about the potential use of the Pegasus spyware against Indian citizens. One of the petitioners is journalist Prem Shankar Jha, whose phone number had also figured in the list of potential spyware targets.)
“The importance of Pegasus lies not in the fact that we have a new spying tool that we have bought at great expense, but the fact that this spying tool has been bought against the background of a campaign to stifle dissent,” veteran Journalist Prem Shankar Jha says in conversation with The Quint about the Pegasus project.
A report published by an Indian online news portal on 18 July revealed that Israel-made spyware Pegasus was believed to have been used to snoop on at least 300 Indian phone numbers, including those of over 40 senior journalists, opposition leaders, government officials, and rights activists.
The phone number of Prem Shankar Jha, who is a regular columnist with The Wire, also figured in the list of potential spyware targets.
While the senior journalist has shared that he does not feel “any sense of threat” on seeing his name in the list of potential targets of the spyware, he also maintains that the use of the spyware cannot be viewed in isolation from other attempts of crushing dissent, such as the incarceration of the under-trials in the Bhima Koregaon case, the UAPA and the sedition law, and raids at the offices of news media organisations.
On Dissent and Democracy
On being asked what happens if you stifle dissent in a democracy, Jha replies: “The democracy dies.”
“The most fundamental of many possible definitions of democracy is that is an agreement in the society to replace the bullet with the ballot. For that freedom to be there, for people to constantly say we prefer ballot, rather than the bullet, they must have freedom of dissent.”
Going on to talk about the incarceration of the under-trials in the Bhima Koregaon case, Prem Shankar Jha says that those supporting tribal rights have been put in jail “as an example”.
Recently, in July, Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy, passed away at 84 years of age, as an incarcerated under-trial in the case.
On being asked what income tax raids on offices of media organisations, such as the Dainik Bhaskar, indicate, Jha recalls the newspaper’s honest reportage during COVID and says:
“They (the raids) send out a strong message to the owners of media organisations: 'Beware, control your journalists!'”
Further, the senior journalist warns that if the present government does not re-examine policy, open up and explain more, it will be extremely difficult for it to retain power democratically in 2024.
The Pegasus Reports
Israel-made Pegasus was believed to have been used to snoop on at least 300 Indian phone numbers.
The names of Rahul Gandhi, Prashant Kishor, Ashok Lavasa, and Union ministers Prahlad Patel and Ashwini Vaishnaw, are among those on the leaked list, The Wire reported.
However, the presence of the numbers in the 'Pegasus Project' does not confirm that the device was actually 'infected with Pegasus or subject to an attempted hack,' The Wire said.
The Indian government, on its part, has denied any role in the snooping operations, slamming the reports.
On 19 July, the NSO Group that developed the Pegasus spyware, had put out a statement denying all allegations and stating that its programme was for "vetted governments for the sole purpose of saving lives through preventing crime and terror acts".