Why the silence on NSA spying?

The media has not cared to go beyond customary and tepid articles on NSA spying on the BJP.

BySiddharthya Roy
Why the silence on NSA spying?
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On Tuesday, July 1, 2014, nearly every English media outlet in India that has a website carried the news of a report that had appeared in The Washington Post the previous day, on Monday, June 30.

The report was about yet another revelation by the National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower, Edward Snowden. This time it was about foreign targets of surveillance that have been explicitly authorised to be spied on by the United States of America government through their top-secret and pseudo-judicial institution called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court.

The report mentions two principal points. One, except the four direct US allies in spying — Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom (members of what the NSA-CIA-FBI call the Five Eyes Program) — the NSA is authorised to spy on any and every nation irrespective of them being allies, enemies or neutral nations. Two, there are six foreign political parties which are authorised to be spied on – the Amal of Lebanon, the Bolivarian Continental Coordinator of Venezuela, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian National Salvation Front, the Pakistan People’s Party and India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

It is a good thing that a news item about the sheer invasive nature of surveillance by the US — which seemingly doesn’t differentiate between friend and foe — and its complete ignorance of international ethics on how to treat allies and utter disrespect for privacy is being reported by all in the Indian media. But given their past record, notwithstanding the serious security concerns this report raises, the odds are entirely against the news making it past the weekend.

Not on the agenda

On April 5, 2010, the “Collateral Damage” video leaked by US soldier Chelsea Manning and published by Julian Assange’s Wikileaks was the epochal event of what has over the past three-and-a-half years become the biggest and most continuous volume of government and corporate secrets being outed by whistleblowers. “Collateral Damage” was followed closely by the huge cache of diplomatic cables and the cache of over five million emails from the computer network of private intelligence contractor Stratfor. And then came the Snowden revelations about the gargantuan spying network laid out by the NSA that taps and records every possible communication.

The impact of the leaks has been huge, both for the political-corporate bloc as well as the mainstream media.

Irrespective of the side of the political and ethical fence the Western media have taken vis-à-vis the whistleblowing, almost every major news outlet in the world (especially large English ones like The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Fox, CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera English), has followed the leaks and kept up with the flow through reporting, analyses and debates. The attempts to downplay the effect of the Snowden revelations by corporate and government PR has largely failed.

The Indian English media story is an absolute contrast to that.

No major English news outlet in India has cared to go beyond customary and tepid articles. Even a  cursory glance through the articles carried in the big four in print – The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express and The Hindu – will show that most of what has been reported is either paraphrasing from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian et al. Or, at best, it is syndication feed. Independent reporting of the leaks is nowhere to be seen.

The only notable exception in this pattern was The Hindu website which started an online feed about the Wikileaks revelations, in partnership with The Guardian. Former Editor-in-Chief, N Ram even interviewed Assange in person — during which Assange made direct statements about former PM Manmohan Singh lying to the people of India about the role of the US in Indian domestic politics and policy-framing. But that sliver of independent reporting was short-lived and the news died as soon as The Guardian management fell out with Assange.

The scene in TV media is even worse. Neither does the nation loudly want to know what’s up with the mass-spying by the US in India, nor does the buck ever stop at those responsible for safeguarding against such invasions of privacy. All in all, there has been next to no independent reporting or analyses about what is probably the biggest turning point in the history of investigative journalism. The otherwise furious media narrative has been markedly lethargic in this matter.

Money matters

Two primary phenomena are driving this lethargy and blindside reporting.

One is the highly inward-looking nature of our news. The ever-decreasing space given to reporting and analysis of international politics over the past decade has literally pushed it off the margins in almost all mainstream Indian news. It would be very hard to recall when was the last telecast of a prime-time debate that had an international political issue (non India-Pakistan clamour that is) on the agenda. Both the consumers a.k.a. readers/audience and the manufacturers a.k.a. news corporations seem more than content with the holler of domestic politicking. So, when that keeps the cash registers ringing why bother taking the trouble to report international politics?

It’s not that we don’t have international news dished out. We do, very much. But only the kind that rings the cash registers directly. For example, reporting and analyses about movements in the international financial markets is done with alacrity because huge finance capital budgets are looking at it. Or, reporting on FIFA and cricket world cups and glamour stories from the Oscars and the Cannes Film festival, which have loads of corporate sponsorship money riding on them.

But when it comes to news that doesn’t tie in with the direct domestic consumer markets, we have little or none of it. Thus, climate change, the freedom of reporting issues in Egypt and Ukraine, the aforementioned leaks and revelations and other stories like it that are important talking points for the Western English media and reporting community find no space here.

Second, is the nature of our technology (computer-related) reporting that has gone severely awry. Here too there is very little beyond releases and reviews of new gadgets (yet again the consumer-market yardstick comes into play). Slim exceptions like The Hindu’s “The Edge” existed, but were phased out earlier this year.

For one, Wikileaks, Manning, Snowden, Barrett Brown, Anonymous, Paypal 14, Poitras-Greenwald and their dynamics with establishment media, are not only news for the technical world – but are stories that come with deeper political discourses than what the English media in India is used to reporting nowadays. Second, these are technology stories that are not trying to sell anything to anyone and are, therefore, not paid for by relevant PR agencies.

Indian Political Establishment

The political establishment and the media lend their lethargy to each other. Because there isn’t enough reporting on the issues, politicians who are regulars at TV shows don’t bother taking a stand. And because the politicians don’t get all worked up about the issue, news companies don’t bother chasing politicians for a reaction on such stories.

Right after Snowden revealed how India was one of the prime targets of spying by the NSA, the response by then External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid was stunning in its lethargy and lack of political will to face its demons. Khurshid underplayed the gravity of the spying, saying that what the US was doing wasn’t spying but just routine data collection. The sense of the statement is that the data is very superficial and not precise enough to be of strategic importance.

Regrettably, he was not pressed for elaborations on what he considered routine. Because as if “routine data collection” wasn’t damaging enough a euphemism, facts show it was anything but routine and superficial.

In his book No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald documents his interactions with Edward Snowden and gives  snapshots of what information he handed over. On pages 145 and 146, a table is laid out listing the kinds of data that are being flicked off from different countries. It shows that the Indian embassies in the US (both New York and Washington DC) are subject to the following kinds of monitoring

* HIGHLANDS – code for listening in and/or viewing with implants (bugs as they are commonly called)

* MAGNETIC – code for using sensors to collect magnetic (induction generated) field variations coming from cables like telephone and computers and using them to capture the data moving through the cables

* VAGRANT – code for recording computer screens

* LIFESAVER – code for taking copies of computer hard disks

In short, the NSA captures phone calls made to and from the embassy, individuals talking inside the embassies and possibly visuals too, computer communication transmitted through cables, screenshots and/or recording and even data that has not been sent anywhere but is merely stored in the embassies’ computers. If all of that is just routine collection, one wonders what is specific spying.

Over and above that, there is the large-scale capture of data that is happening through Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, facebook, Cisco, Dell and so on. It is no secret that even government servants in India use free web-based email ids and there is little or no regulation about what they post on social media.

Former PM Manmohan Singh refused to recognise the very existence of such spying and repeated ad nauseam that the US and India were allies and acted as such.

In the run-up to the 2014 elections, the BJP castigated the Congress for its weak and supine nature, but has, as yet, done nothing different from its predecessors. In fact, now that it has come to light that the NSA spied specifically on the BJP (for reasons best known to them), one would wait to see their official statement of strong condemnation and capabilities of taking countermeasures — if any. At this point, it is safe to say there won’t be any of either.

Whither Indian twitteratti

The blame of lethargy and indifference must not entirely be cast upon the mainstream media and political parties.

The eponymous cyber-savvy common man of India must be questioned too. There are the legions of BJP/Modi supporters who became a phenomenon with their ability to trend anything they please. Bots like BJP4India run by the Modi campaign could send messages and tweets to anyone on Twitter proving their technological superiority above others. In fact, they became such a phenomenon (and perhaps brought in such revenue) that Twitter India head honcho Rishi Jaitly can’t stop waxing eloquent about Modi campaign’s success in leveraging the microblogging site (see here).

Yet, as of the evening of July 1, 2014, the day on which the news of BJP being spied upon was reported, the India trends on Twitter stand thus:






Tapas Pal


The Times of India

The Indian Express

No mention of the NSA spying. Why the silence from the legions of NaMo bhakt profiles on such a crucial issue?

Why the silence?

The answer lies in the constitution of Twitter in India.

One, the number of fake sock puppets and bots is very high and the tweeting-retweeting phenomenon was a professionally crafted one. Very unlike the Egypt, Turkey and Tunisian Spring movements or the Occupy movements where real grassroots activists used Twitter effectively and continue to do so seamlessly moving from issue to issue and movement to movement. With the elections gone, the Twitter follower farms have been stopped and all has gone quiet.

Two, the pro-BJP handles that have real people using them don’t seem to care about any issue other than those that yield short-term political benefits, such as the Congress (or AAP) versus BJP debate.

If we randomly select an Indian website that has carried the news (say, for example, Zee News), it shows that like any other debate on any other topic this too has been turned into a Cong/AAP vs BJP debate.

The world over, we are witness to the fact that when establishment media goes wrong and persists in viewing and reporting things through their comfortable prisms, social and unregulated media comes in to challenge that. But as things stand today, there is little possibility of that in India.

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