The investigation shows that journalists in India face “threats of illegal surveillance” as well as other “tools of repression.”
The Indian government used the highly invasive Pegasus spyware to target high-profile journalists, according to a new investigation by Amnesty International and the Washington Post.
The findings, released Thursday, document India’s repeated use of Pegasus against journalists, including one who was previously the victim of an attack using the same spyware.
Created by Israeli company NSO Group, Pegasus can be used to access a phone’s messages and emails, browse photos, listen to calls, track locations and even film the owner with the camera.
Watchdogs have documented widespread use of the spyware — which NSO says is only sold to governments or security agencies — against journalists and activists in dozens of countries, including India.
Amnesty said journalists Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of digital media outlet The Wire, and Anand Mangnale, South Asia editor at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), had been targeted by spyware on their iPhones, with the last identified case being October 2023.
“Increasingly, journalists in India face the threat of illegal surveillance simply for doing their work, as well as other tools of repression, including imprisonment under draconian laws, campaigns defamation, harassment and intimidation,” said Donncha O Cearbhaill, director of Amnesty’s security lab.
“Despite repeated revelations, there has been a shameful lack of accountability around the use of Pegasus spyware in India, which only intensifies the sense of impunity for these human rights violations. »
Amnesty said its security lab recovered evidence from Mangnale’s device that a zero-click exploit designed to secretly install Pegasus had been sent to his phone.
A zero-click exploit refers to malware that allows spyware to be installed on a device without the user needing to click on a link.
In October, Apple released a new round of global threat notifications to iPhone users who may have been targeted by “state-sponsored attackers.” More than 20 journalists and opposition politicians in India have reportedly received these notices.
Mangnale’s phone was targeted at a time when he was working on a story about alleged stock manipulation by a large multinational conglomerate in India, Amnesty said.
OCCRP in August published an investigation into the financial dealings of Indian tycoon Gautam Adani, a key ally of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Mangnale told the AFP news agency that he was targeted “within hours” of sending questions to Adani Group on behalf of OCCRP.
Varadarajan – who was previously hacked with the Pegasus spyware in 2018 – suggested to the Washington Post that he had been targeted for leading opposition to the detention of a prominent news publisher in New Delhi.
The Indian government did not immediately respond to questions about the investigation.
In 2021, New Delhi was accused of using Pegasus to monitor journalists, opposition politicians and activists, with leaked documents showing the spyware had been used against more than 1,000 Indian phone numbers.
“Targeting journalists solely for doing their job amounts to an illegal invasion of their privacy and violates their right to freedom of expression. All states, including India, have an obligation to protect human rights by protecting people from unlawful surveillance,” said Amnesty’s O Cearbhaill.
Activists say press freedom in the world’s largest democracy has suffered during Modi’s tenure. India has fallen 21 places to 161st out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, since it took office in 2014.
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