On July 19, Reporters Without Borders, an international collective of journalists headquartered in Paris, declared “its intention to bring legal action against those responsible” for carrying out “mass surveillance” through the Israeli spyware Pegasus.
The following day, RSF and two French journalists a joint complaint with prosecutors in Paris. On July 21, French president Emmanuel Macron, himself a potential target of Pegasus, multiple investigations into the snooping.
In India, the Narendra Modi government’s response to the revelations has been coloured with denial and obfuscation.
But journalists and media associations too want to wait it out before going to the court. The story is still evolving, they say, and they want to observe what the government will do in the coming weeks.
According to the Wire, a member of the global consortium of media organisations which exposed the snooping, at least 40 journalists in the country targets or potential targets of the spyware. They include independent journalists as well as employees of the Indian Express, Hindustan Times, India Today, and Wire.
‘We’ll take time to decide what we do’
At a protest meeting at the Press Club of India, Delhi, on Thursday, MK Venu, a founding editor of the Wire whose phone was infected by Pegasus, demanded an inquiry. “There should be an inquiry, else we will approach the courts,” Venu said. “According to Siddharth Luthra, a lawyer I’ve spoken to, there can also be a police case in the matter.”
The journalist associations that met at the Press club included the Indian Women’s Press Corps and the Editors Guild of India. Their representatives said while they have no concrete plans to move the courts over the surveillance, they’re prepared to support journalists who have been affected.
“We are already issuing statements and we expect the Indian government to state what it wants to do. The legal way out is always available to journalists,” Vineeta Pandey, president of the Women’s Press Corps, told Newslaundry. “The law needs a locus standi. The affected journalists have been talking to lawyers and if the government doesn’t hold an inquiry, they will go to the courts and we will support them – monetarily, physically, emotionally. We cannot leave our people to fight their battles alone.”
Sanjay Kapoor, general secretary of the Editors Guild of India, said it is still early days of the controversy. “We’ve gone to court on the issue of sedition. Pegasus is new. We take our time to decide what we do,” he said. “We’re supporting them morally but we are not going to be co-petitioners or anything. We are keeping a watch and we will look into it in the coming days.”
Umakant Lakhera, president of the Press Club, called for an inquiry monitored by the Supreme Court. But as for seeking legal recourse, he said things are still in the pipeline. “We will discuss with constitutional experts, lawyers and other media bodies on how to move,” he explained. “We are waiting for a response from the government and we’ll wait for two weeks or a month. The parliament is in session. After that we might submit a joint memorandum before the government where we will give them a timeline.”
‘We’re waiting and watching’
For journalists whose phones tested positive for Pegasus, mounting a legal challenge to the government is a distant idea.
“I believe that there should be a legal challenge. But since I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know what kind of a legal challenge,” said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, whose phone was reportedly compromised between April and July 2018. “I am willing to be part of any public interest petition. I am willing to be a part of the RSF case. But I’m not sure what kind of legal action they are going to take. Will they go to the international court of justice, or will they take on the NSO in Israel? I don’t know.”
The seasoned journalist was referring to the NSO Group, the Isreali company behind Pegasus.
Thakurta said he is not aware of any plan on part of the affected journalists to move court. “I think it’s early days because the story is still unfolding. So let’s wait and watch,” he said. “There will be some legal action. As to where and at what fora, whether it’ll be journalistic bodies, the unions, or whether it’ll only be the affected people, including me, things are not clear. But they will be clear in the near future.”
J Gopikrishnan, whose name allegedly appeared in the list of potential Pegasus targets, has consulted a few lawyers. “They say there is a chance of filing a writ petition,” he said. “But nobody knows a concrete process of how to go about it. I am observing what others who have been affected are doing. I’m waiting and watching.”
A senior correspondent with the English newspaper Pioneer, Gopikrishnan added that as a journalist, he does not want to waste his time on the matter. “I have seen this kind of tapping since 2009. Plus, I have no proof. Only Wire and an American journalist have informed me about it. But I’m sure that it has happened to me for a long time.”
Another journalist whose phone was infected by the spyware is Rohini Singh. She too is “waiting and watching” whether the Modi government orders an investigation into the Pegasus snooping. “I discussed it with other journalists who were on the target list and legal recourse is an option we’re exploring,” she told Newslaundry. “It is very nice for those not affected by it to say they will support us, but ultimately it will boil down to those of us who are on the target list.”
According to Singh, any decision to move court will have to be “thought out” and “professional”. “Lawyers will have to be consulted,” she added. “It’s something that should be done collectively, not individually.”
At least three journalists associated with the Indian Express – Ritika Chopra, Muzamil Jaleel and former deputy editor Sushant Singh – were reportedly targeted by Pegasus. Vijaita Singh, a journalist with the Hindu, was a potential target, too.
N Ram, director of the Hindu Publishing Group, said they will watch the situation as it evolves. “I do not know if courts are the answer. We’ll have to check with lawyers,” he added. “They will ask for evidence so I don’t know yet. It’s a bit premature.”
Raj Kamal Jha, editor of the Indian Express, wouldn’t comment on the paper’s course of action. A day after the Wire broke the Pegasus snooping story, Jha was in his newspaper as protesting that the “potential targeting for surveillance” of several Express journalists “is a breach of the Constitutional guarantees of freedom and privacy”.
“We’ll see what we do next,” he told Newslaundry. “I have nothing to add to what we’ve already said in the paper.”