India targeting high-profile journalists with spyware: Amnesty

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            New Delhi, Dec 28 (AFP/APP):India’s government has again targeted high-profile journalists with Pegasus spyware, Amnesty International and The Washington Post said in a joint investigation published Thursday.

                  Created by Israeli firm NSO Group, Pegasus can be used to access a phone’s messages and emails, peruse photos, eavesdrop on calls, track locations and even film the owner with the camera.

                  Watchdogs have documented widespread use of the spyware — which is normally only sold to governments or security agencies — against journalists and activists in dozens of countries, including India.

                  Amnesty said journalists Siddharth Varadarajan of The Wire and Anand Mangnale of The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) had been targeted with the spyware on their iPhones.

                  “Increasingly, journalists in India face the threat of unlawful surveillance simply for doing their jobs,” said Donncha O Cearbhaill, head of Amnesty International’s Security Lab.

                  That threat compounds an already hostile climate for reporters also facing “imprisonment under draconian laws, smear campaigns, harassment, and intimidation”, he added.

                  India’s government did not immediately respond to the report, which said the most recent identified case of spyware use occurred in October.

                  In 2021, New Delhi was accused of using Pegasus to surveil journalists, opposition politicians and activists, with leaked documents showing the spyware had been used against more than 1,000 Indian phone numbers.

                  Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s main political rival, Rahul Gandhi, was among those targeted.

                  The government denied conducting “illegal surveillance” but refused to cooperate with a Supreme Court probe into the allegations, the findings of which have not been made public.

                  The OCCRP, one of the two target organisations named in Thursday’s report, published an investigation in August into the financial dealings of Indian tycoon Gautam Adani, a key business ally of Modi.

                  Adani’s conglomerate shed more than $100 billion in value earlier this year after a US short-seller investment firm made explosive allegations of accounting fraud, which the Indian company dismissed as an organised “smear campaign”.

                  Mangnale told AFP that he was targeted “within hours” of sending questions to Adani Group on behalf of the OCCRP.

                  “I can’t blame the Adani Group or the Government of India for it, because we don’t have the evidence yet,” he added. “But, the chronology itself is really telling.”

                  Varadarajan of The Wire suggested to The Washington Post that he had been targeted for leading opposition to the detention of a prominent news publisher in New Delhi.

                  Local media reported last month that authorities were again investigating allegations by opposition politicians of attempted phone tapping after they reported receiving warnings from Apple of “state-sponsored attackers”.

                  In that case, Ashwini Vaishnaw, the information and technology minister, said the government was “concerned” by the complaints.

                  Activists say that press freedom in the world’s biggest democracy has suffered during Modi’s tenure.

                  India has fallen 21 spots to 161 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, since he took office in 2014.

                  Journalists reporting critically on the government say they are subjected to judicial harassment and relentless campaigns of online abuse.