August 15, 2021

Journalists Question Government’s Silence on Pegasus

DELHI Union of Journalists (DUJ), in association with the Press Club of India, met on August 7 to discuss the topic “From Defamation to Sedition to Pegasus” organised by the National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ).

Senior advocate and analyst Sanjay Hegde, said India was now becoming one of the most unsafe countries for independent journalists. “The modus operandi of the government has assumed a certain gradation -if you can't shut down people with defamation then shut them down with sedition," he said.

Propaganda is the order of the day. News organisations are either co-opted, coerced or made complicit in a regime which seems to have the entire ownership of truth, he said. He pointed out that in times of deceit truth is a revolutionary act. Both journalists and lawyers have a crucial role to play in the upholding of democracy and the Constitution today, he said, observing that Mahatma Gandhi had been both a journalist and a lawyer. The Constitution had attempted to create an order of scientific temper but now blind faith rules and Ambedkar’s grandson-in-law is in jail.

Referring to Pegasus, Hegde noted that a tool meant for intelligence gathering for national security is being misused for surveillance of everyone from journalists to politicians to registrars of the Supreme Court and even the relatives of a woman clerk who complained of sexual harassment. Yet the government refuses to state clearly if it has the tool and has used it.

Summing up the discussion S K Pande, president of the DUJ, said we seem to be heading for something worse than the emergency. This time it is an undeclared emergency .He added that the attacks on the media have been multi-pronged. Media barons have used Covid as a pretext for widespread sackings. Many of those covering Covid contracted the disease, many have suffered burnout and mental trauma. About 1,000 journalists have succumbed to Covid.

The four labour codes have finished off the labour laws including the Working Journalists Acts and whatever job permanency was left. The provision for setting up wage boards has been done away with. The Press Council of India has been packed with convenient people. None of the national bodies and unions, including the DUJ which was born in the freedom struggle, have not been given representation. Infact, it has been admitted in Parliament that there is no proposal to have a Media Council of India as demanded by various bodies. This was a demand which was considered actively by both Congress and BJP governments in the past and recommended by at least three past well-known Press Council chairmen in view of the growing wide spectrum media.

He also referred to the increasing attacks on the independent digital media, the deliberate neglect of the Urdu press and the bleeding financially with subtle terrorisation of news agencies like UNI and PTI with all the lollipops being given to ANI besides attacks on individual journalists. He called for a joint, phased programme of discussions and protests.

Senior advocate Surendra Nath, general secretary of the All India Lawyers Union said the legal definition of sedition is in contradiction to democracy. He recalled that Mahatma Gandhi had called the anti-sedition Section 124A the prince of the IPC in its suppression of liberty. This 1860 law which was long dormant is now being misused, he said.

Jaishankar Gupta of Press Association of India said, “What we are witnessing is fascism. The regime is intolerant toward dissent.” He said it only wants journalists who will sing its praises. For those who do not know, there are draconian laws like UAPA, NSA and the sedition law. He said the Pegasus issue is complicated because it links up with the Rafale deal and the French NGO Media Part’s journalists’ phones too were infiltrated by the software.

Senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who is among the journalists to have gone to the Supreme Court on the Pegasus affair, as his phone was targeted, said the Supreme Court has asked several questions. Firstly, it has asked why no one complained earlier, if snooping began in 2019. Thakurta said they had learnt of the infiltration only recently and that unlike the earlier clickbait kind of malware, this Pegasus is a more sophisticated zero click software which is harder to detect. He also pointed out that under the IT Act a case can be filed only when a person's own body has been violated. So in this case, the avenue of redressal and legal recourse remains limited.

Thakurta noted that since NSO sells its spyware only to governments, it has to be a government agency that is doing the snooping in India. “The government is not saying yes or no. It is only saying there has been no unauthorised use. Then who authorised it?” he asked.

He also pointed out that this is not an international conspiracy against India. The Pegasus investigation involves 17 prestigious media organisations such as Le Monde and the Washington Post who found a list of phone numbers of 50,000 possible targets from 40 countries. Those whose phones were targeted included six heads of governments such as Macron and Imran Khan. He said several governments are investigating the issue, so why cannot there be an independent investigation in India?

Veteran journalist, Vinay Kumar said the country is paying a high price for the indifference of the middle class. Despite the huge price rise there seems to be no resentment, he said. Meanwhile, all institutions are apparently being manipulated and managed including the judiciary and the media, he said. He observed that it is our collective task to prop up all democratic institutions today.

Rajya Sabha MP and veteran journalist John Brittas, pointed out that in 2010 a whole Parliament session had been dropped over the 2G CAG report. However, ultimately the government had agreed to a JPC. The Supreme Court had intervened later and cases had been filed against some people. Now, said Brittas, his questions on Pegasus are not being allowed and the excuse being trotted out to stop discussion on Pegasus is that the matter is sub-judice.

Veteran journalist and activist ND Jayaprakash spoke on the controversy surrounding the Index Monitoring committee set up by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry in the wake of the adverse report of Reporters Sans Borders on press freedom in the country.

The Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) highlighted that their member Siddique Kappan continues to languish in jail since October 2020 when he had gone to cover the story of a dalit girl’s rape case in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. He is charged with the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Kappan has not yet been granted bail and the trial has also not started. Solidarity messages were received from the National Alliance of Journalist (NAJ) from Andhra Pradesh who announced solidarity action not only against press bashing but against saving journalism for the future.

DUJ general secretary, Sujata Madhok cited some figures on the increasing numbers of cases filed for sedition under Section 124A of the IPC. As many as 279 cases were booked and 3,762 individuals charged with sedition during the Manmohan Singh government (2010-2014). But 519 sedition cases against 7,136 individuals were booked during the Modi government (2014-2020).

Former general secretary of Press Club of India, Anant Bagaitkar said that we are heading for the long battle for civil liberties and the press is being targeted.

The idea of mobilisation for a Media Commission of India to look into what has been done to media, but more autonomous than the first and second press commissions and with experts from the judiciary and media besides Parliamentarians was suggested by DUJ president in his concluding remarks.