Project Pegasus: Indian Express carries lead headline, Hindu buries it in inside pages

A round-up of how the Big Four English dailies reported on the Pegasus data leak.

ByNL Team
Project Pegasus: Indian Express carries lead headline, Hindu buries it in inside pages
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From Saturday night onwards, Indian Twitter was rife with chatter of a big data dump that would reveal large-scale surveillance and hacking attempts made on journalists, bureaucrats, politicians and even possible members of the judiciary.

By Sunday morning many names began doing rounds of WhatsApp groups and finally the big reveal came on Sunday at 9.30 pm with the Wire putting out a list of 40 journalists whose phones were possibly infected with the Pegasus spyware: some obvious and not-so obvious names.

Project Pegasus

The Wire is one of the 17 news organisations across the world that collaborated with a Paris-based non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty's Security Lab. Both these organisations had access to a list of more than 50,000 cellphone numbers “concentrated in countries known to surveil their citizens and also known to have been clients of NSO Group”.

It is important to note here that Pegasus’ developer NSO has stated that it licenses its spyware only to governments to keep track of criminals, terrorists, drug dealers and so on, and not private citizens.

Now, on to the names on the list. The first part by the Wire reveals a list of 40 journalists whose phones may have been ‘potentially’ targeted by Pegasus. The word potentially is important here because merely being on the list is not conclusive proof. For that one needs a forensic examination of the device by experts. This is where Amnesty's Security Lab stepped in since it can detect successful Pegasus infections.

From the 40 journalists mentioned by the Wire, only seven agreed to have their phones examined by Amnesty. These include the phones of former Indian Express journalist Sushant Singh, India Ahead News contributing editor Smita Sharma who was with Tribune when the attempts happened, former EPW editor and present Newsclick contributor Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, former Outlook journalist SNM Abdi, the Hindu’s Vijaita Singh and the Wire’s two founding editors Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu were analysed.

Of these seven journalists, the Wire reports that Amnesty detected successful infections in phones of five journalists: Sushant Singh, Thakurta, Abdi, Varadarajan and Venu.

The list of 40 journalists, however, includes names from major Delhi-based news mainstream news organisations like Indian Express, Hindustan Times, India Today, TV18, the Hindu, the Pioneer, and independent journalists. These phones were targeted between 2018 and 2019, but it’s important to note that not all journalists on the list are perceived to be anti-establishment or are known for their stories against the current government. In fact, Shishir Gupta, executive editor of Hindustan Times, last made news for sending an email to Bharatiya Janata Party national president Amit Shah and officer on special duty in the PMO, Hiren Joshi, with the subject “KEJRIWAL AGAINST CENTRE”. Read about this here.

Some other journalists like Ritika Chopra of the Indian Express, Vijaita Singh of the Hindu, Sandeep Unnithan of India Today, Manoj Gupta of TV18, J Gopikrishnan of the Pioneer, among others, are beat reporters who cover central ministries.

Journalists stationed in states like Bihar, Jharkhand and Punjab also feature in the list. Notable among the names is Roopesh Kumar Singh, an activist and independent journalist based in Jharkhand’s Ramgarh. Three phone numbers belonging to him are part of the leaked list. Newslaundry had reported on Singh’s arrest in 2019. He had alleged back then that the Bihar police was trying to frame him as a Maoist.

Given the sheer number of reporters and journalists from mainstream news organisations on the list, it is interesting to note today morning’s coverage on the Pegasus Project across the Big Four English newspapers.

The Hindu

The Hindu made the curious decision not to carry the news on its front page, considering its journalist Vijaita Singh, who covers the home ministry, is named as one of the journalists allegedly targeted.

A small report appeared at the top of page 8 in its Delhi and Chennai editions, headlined “Pegasus software used to ‘snoop’ on journalists”. The report noted: “Vijaita Singh, who works for the Hindu’s national bureau, also figures in the list…”

The Hindu did not carry an oped on the Pegasus leak.

Hindustan Times

Hindustan Times, whose executive editor Shishir Gupta was allegedly targeted alongside two other journalists, had a snippet on the data leak on page 1. The report said: “In its response, the Indian government termed the investigation a ‘fishing expedition’ and that there is ‘no concrete basis or truth’ associated with the claim that there was ‘government surveillance on specific people’.”

The report continued on page 9 with details on the multi-part investigation, the journalists targeted and India’s response. It noted that “three current Hindustan Times journalists are named, as is one from sister publication Mint”.

Hindustan Times did not carry an oped on the issue.

The Indian Express

Unlike the Hindu and HT, the Indian Express gave the story its due importance. It placed the story as its lead on the front page with the headline: “Phones of 2 ministers, 3 Opp leaders among many targeted for tap: Report”. Express also had a front page story on the 40 journalists in the ‘surveillance’ list.

The report noted that their journalist Ritika Chopra, who is on the list, covers Election Commission and that during the potential period when she was targeted, she had reported on the divide within the Election Commission over its response to complaints of poll code violations including those related to then incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then BJP president Amit Shah.

It also had a quote from Express editor-in-chief Raj Kamal Jha: “The potential targeting for surveillance of our journalists is a breach of the Constitutional guarantees of freedom and privacy. These principles, affirmed time and again by the Supreme Court, are vital to the independence, dignity and functioning of the press. The Indian Express Group is committed to defending these principles.”

The Times of India

TOI also placed the story on its front-page flap. The report is headlined: “Spyware used to snoop on mins, oppn, journalists, bizmen: Report”. It notes that the allegation of surveillance is set to cast a shadow on the monsoon session of Parliament, which begins today.

Some of the journalists on the list spoke up on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the government of India responded last night via ANI.

This piece has been updated with Smita Sharma's response and her current designation.

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