Backstory: It’s Time Journalists Woke Up to Their Digital Security

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Backstory: It’s Time Journalists Woke Up to Their Digital Security

October 31, 2022: The Delhi Police raided the homes of The Wire’s founding editors, deputy editor, and business head, taking away phones, computers, and iPads. Hard disks from two computers used by accounts staff were also seized. The raiding teams reportedly sought and took, passwords to official and personal email accounts belonging to one or more staffers, and asked some of those raided to disable passcodes from their devices. According to sources at The Wire, no hash value (a unique numerical value issued to maintain the integrity of digital data) or cloned copy was given at the time of seizure. (Source: The Wire)

October 3, 2023: The Special Cell of the Delhi Police conducted raids at various locations including NewsClick’s offices, residences of journalists and employees – past and present, consultants, and freelance contributors associated with NewsClick. FIRs were not provided, nor were the particulars of the alleged offences made available. Electronic devices were seized without any adherence to due process such as the provision of seizure memos, hash values of the seized data, or even copies of the data seized. (Source: NewsClick)

One year separated these two raids on media establishments. What is striking is the similarity of the modus operandi adopted by the Delhi Police. In both instances, there was a complete disregard for even the most basic norms laid down in numerous court verdicts. They also point to the sharply asymmetric power relations between the police and the journalists under scrutiny. These are tactics that recall the Gestapo-like methods of the Israeli National Police and the Law Enforcement Command of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Despite the political hostility between Iran and Israel, both law enforcement models share a common bestiality of approach. “You can give us your password the easy way, or the hard way,” an Iranian journalist recalled being told, in an interaction with the Committee to Protect Journalists during the protests that followed the death of Mahsa Amini. The “hard” way can well be imagined.

Representative image. Photo: Karnika Kohli/The Wire

Closer home, during the NewsClick raids, the police came away with some 250 devices seized from 90 journalists without the hash values of these seized electronic items being given to even one of them. A journalist who was raided revealed the trauma it had caused in a conversation with me: “Imagine seven or eight burly men turning up at your doorstep early in the morning. When asked for a warrant, they produce a sheet of white paper indicating in a few lines that a search and seizure operation has been ordered under the authority of the ACP of the Special Cell, Delhi Police.

One is so totally intimidated, one cannot even think straight. You find yourself blindly submitting to everything demanded, from providing access to all your papers, certificates, even those related to ownership of personal property. Documents of identification, including passports, were asked for, and taken. Passwords and pin numbers to devices were demanded and meekly surrendered. There was no way one could contact one’s colleagues and ask for advice because my mobile phone was now in the hands of the police officer and that was the last time I saw it. I felt I had become a non-person, stripped of my rights, my dignity and my ability to carry on – not just with my work, but my life.”

Also read: ‘NewsClick Raids Emblematic of Shrinking Press Freedom, Democratic Backslide in South Asia’

It is experiences like this that have gone to inform a crucial petition filed before the Supreme Court of India by five academics and the Foundation for Media Professionals (‘Device Seizures Are Making a Mockery of The Supreme Court’s Landmark Privacy Ruling’, October 17). The petition suggests guidelines for such search and seizure interventions based on constitutional rights and Supreme Court verdicts. It emphasises that “seizure of electronic devices must take place only after a judicial warrant”, with emergency seizure being the exception rather than the rule and obtained only after reasons for such emergency action are cited. It ruled out any seizure made on the basis of conjecture over the possibility of evidence being found. Should a device be seized, it must first be subjected to an initial examination by an independent agency in the presence of the owner of the device. Importantly, all “irrelevant, personal and privileged material” would need to be separately identified with the investigating agency being entitled only to a copy of the relevant material. The device itself must be returned immediately thereupon. Further, the owners of devices which are sought to be seized cannot be compelled to divulge any credentials or passwords, or information.

The case is still being heard but the Supreme Court, in its initial response to the counter-arguments raised by the government’s lawyers, acknowledged that this is indeed a very serious issue and guidelines protecting journalists from arbitrary seizures need to be in place (‘Need Proper Guidelines for Seizure of Digital Devices of Journalists: Supreme Court’, November 7).

The conspicuous rise in the targeting of journalists by the Modi government points to wider anxiety that the narrative it has successfully created and furthered through coopted corporate media is being undone by those journalists it targets as anti-national. The pattern of stigmatising independent journalists had been set as early as 2015, a year after the Modi government came to power, when one minister came up with a slur, “presstitute”, coined by US-based Gerald Celente, against those who critiqued his style of functioning. Since then the Sanghi troll army, which functions as this government’s virtual praetorian guard, has come up with many more attack words, including the ubiquitous “urban naxals”.

It is not surprising then that the Apple notice to about two dozen Indians warning them that their devices have been “compromised by a state-sponsored attack” included at least three journalists (the founder editor of this news portal and the investigative reporter who broke the story on Adani’s stock manipulation were in the list). Such attempts to stymie the opposition and the free media could get even more pernicious as the 2024 general election draws closer.

Apar Gupta, who heads a digital rights advocacy group, Internet Freedom Foundation, points out that the Indian government, which has neither denied nor accepted that it has used the Pegasus spyware in the past, is today actively in the hunt for new spyware, with the Financial Times reporting that India is “seeking new spyware contracts starting at approximately $16 million and potentially escalating to $120 million in the next few years. These contracts involve companies like the Intellexa Alliance, recently featured in a report called The Predator Files (‘Apple Warns Top Indian Opposition Leaders, Journalists About ‘State-Sponsored’ Attack on Phone’, October 31).

Clockwise from top L: Mahua Moitra, Shashi Tharoor, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sitaram Yechury, Priyanka Chaturvedi, Akhilesh Yadav.

We are living through odd and uneven times, where the instinct to control is swathed in a thick layer of opacity. A brilliant exposition recently carried in The Wire unpacked the draft legislations that the Modi administration has introduced which purportedly seeks to reform and de-colonise the legal framework for criminal justice (‘The Three Criminal Law Bills: Using Criminal Law to Establish Permanent Extra-Constitutional Emergency Powers’, November 1). The writer points out that contrary to the claims made, these drafts actually introduce a “dozen chilling changes to the law that have the potential to liquidate liberty, decimate democracy and fundamentally change the face of our polity from democratic to authoritarian should the government decide to deploy any or all of these changes to their fullest extent”.

Like the all-seeing owl that can pierce the darkness with its gaze, it is only the independent media that can expose the opacity of government functioning. Attempts to hobble journalists through cynically designed laws and sweeping police powers, robbing them of their rights, end up grossly undermining the rights and liberties of all.


Counting the crackdowns, state by state

Here is an important backward glance as five states go to polls. How have the governments of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan, and Telangana fared in terms of Article 19 1(a) constitutional guarantee, which is synonymous with free media? Over the years, the Free Speech Collective (FSC) Collective has been garnering data through systematic state-wise monitoring, and now on the eve of the state elections, it has come out with an important ready-reckoner. Entitled Between Electoral Rhetoric and Ground Reality Free Speech in the States’, it has been authored by four senior journalists and free speech activists, Geeta Seshu, Laxmi Murthy, Malini Subramaniam, and Sarita Ramamoorthy.

The report touches upon a gamut of issues ranging from assassinations of journalists and internet shutdowns, to the silencing of dissent through other ways including the overuse/misuse of laws. The last category has come to be known as ‘lawfare’, defined as the “use of legal systems and institutions to damage or delegitimise an opponent, or to deter an individual’s usage of their legal rights”. Chhattisgarh, in particular, made full use of this method of punishment with journalists being charged under multiple sections of the law for reporting on sand mining and other local level corruption.

Data from all five states indicate some obvious commonalities. Detentions and arrests of journalists have been steadily rising, with Telangana reporting the second largest number of such cases in the country – 40 cases over these five years.

Madhya Pradesh, the report notes, has become a “laboratory of sorts for academic censorship”. It has also not been able to provide a secure environment for journalism as the 2020 killings of Vikram Joshi, and a little later of Sunil Tiwari, indicate. MP also saw the ruthlessness of the state in cracking down on crime reporter, Jaalam Singh, noted for his integrity. For daring to expose the criminal acts of politicians aligned with the ruling party, he had a succession of back-to-back cases (11 at last count) filed against him in different districts of the Gwalior division.

New ways of punishing journalists also surfaced. The Telangana government resorted to bulldozer action on May 22, 2020, to destroy the home of Shanigarapu Parameshwar, a television journalist, who had reported on a local politician having hosted a birthday party at which 500 of his supporters were in attendance at the height of the pandemic lockdown.

While almost every state saw the use of internet shutdowns, some were more blatant in wielding this tool. Rajasthan was a particularly egregious violator. In these five years, there were at least 60 internet shutdowns. The Collective notes that Rajasthan was one of five states challenged in a petition filed before the apex court by the Software Freedom Law Centre last year, which pointed out that such shutdowns are an arbitrary exercise of the law and go against the Supreme Court ruling that the right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to carry on business using the medium of internet is constitutionally protected.

Journalists in Mizoram, being a border state, have their own specific challenges including personal attacks. Some have revealed how self-censorship has become a norm, given the sharp political divisions that mark the state.


Readers write in…

Does Israel need Gandhi?

A rejoinder from Dr. Sandeep Shede, marketing and business strategy consultant: “Your thoughts on the Israel & Hamas Conflict are really thought-provoking

This is one of the worst-researched articles I have read in my entire life. The writer seems extremely confused with so many facts that are irrelevant to the conflict. The portrayal of Indian media was blatantly exaggerated to an inexcusable point.

“The world wants to know the following things: What has Hamas got in this conflict?

Does the have access to Hamas in Gaza? Does the gather input on who finances the Hamas? Does the gather the inputs on who armed Hamas? Does the track the movement of weapons of mass destruction from outside the world into Gaza? Does the gather the input on the 400 km of tunnels and hideouts of Hamas in Gaza? Does the gather the input on selective journalism that is done about Gaza now? Do you believe Israel needs Gandhi for peaceful non-violent resistance in this campaign against uncivilised Hamas terrorists?

“These undemocratic Islamic countries of the Middle East have been a real threat to Israel since its inception in 1948. And the autocrats ruling these Islamic countries are kings and princes in the 21st century. They are collectively fighting with Israel through religious terrorist proxies who term this a religious war. A jihad against all Jews? Do you believe it?

“Hamas is still continuing the attack even today and has not released the hostages. Israel will provide a befitting counterattack to them in order to maintain its existence. Israelis know that. Seven million Jews were killed by Nazi Germany from 1934 to 1945 while practicing Gandhi’s peaceful non-violent resistance. This is 2023, the Israeli counterattack has just started, so don’t get into panic mode. Former US President Donald Trump has spoken at the Republican Jewish Coalition Conference: ‘If you spill a drop of American blood, we will spill a gallon of yours’.

“And Israelis may come up with new war fronts with Islamic countries that intend to wipe Israel off the world map. Also, Hezbollah and others are already compelled by Israel to join the existing Israel and Hamas conflict. Given this, it seems a well-planned, systemic  and strategic approach by Israel to destroy the ‘Axis of Resistance’ led by Hezbollah and others in this conflict itself.”

My response: Thank you Dr. Shede for your mail. While you are entitled to your views, I find it incredulous that in all those questions you raised about the emergence of Hamas, you don’t have even one involving Israel and how it came to exist on land that belonged to the Palestinians. How did it come to rule through dispossession of Palestinians and everyday torture? How did it come to possess nuclear weapons? How did its military become the fourth largest in the world? How does it get away after grievously violating international humanitarian law in its war against Gaza? While Hamas cannot be in any way be exonerated for what it did on October 7 and for its fundamentalist ideology, Israel is today a settler colonial state that practices racist apartheid as state policy. Your patent lack of curiosity about how such a state even emerged is possibly why you endorse so full-throatedly the genocide it has perpetrated on Gaza for over a month now. The blood lust is further reflected in your admiration for the Donald Trump quote.

About the Indian media, you do not present any evidence to suggest that my critique was exaggerated. Since the column came out, information has emerged that the Israeli military facilitated the visits to Israel of the Indian media and provided hospitality and free visas to the women and men who went there. None of this is acknowledged publicly on the channels that accepted this and proceeded to provide a reportage that was completely Israel-centric. They don’t even carry searing newsfeed from Gaza in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion. As someone put it, multiple media outlets and journalists, especially in India, have made it abundantly clear they do not believe Palestinians are humans.

‘We have stopped watching Indian channels’

 Malcolm Printer: “I read your excellent piece on the Indian media’s one-sided coverage of the inhuman atrocities in Gaza today. Many Indians like me have long since stopped watching Indian channels due to their pervasive biases and lack of basic journalistic ethics. Instead, I have replaced them with sources like The Wire, which has rendered yeoman service to the discerning reader and viewer.

“In the present genocide being furthered in Gaza and the West Bank, the insightful Karan Thapar interviews have been truly eye-opening. I congratulate The Wire for going the extra mile in covering the other side of this ghastly carnage. You will be pleased to know that it is largely because of this objective reporting that my views on the perpetrator and victim; terroriser and terrorised in this unending conflict have undergone an informed rationalisation and, even, a reversal. Thank you and keep up the good work!”

Text and image must be in sync

Sushil Ahuja writes: “I would like you to note that while the stories from The Wire are excellent and trustworthy, the photographs that accompany them seem out of balance. We in India tend to get impressed by headlines and mismatched photographs. The stories tell the truth but photographs tell the opposite.”

My response: Not sure what you mean by photographs misleading the reader. It would have been more useful if you had provided instances of such a mismatch.

Endnote: Israel’s war on Gaza has turned out to be a war on children. It has also been a war against journalists with a death toll estimated at anything between 30 and 50, many of whom have also lost their family members. Silencing journalists is now a deliberate strategy of the Israel Defense Force.

On November 9, over 750 journalists wrote an open letter condemning what was termed as “the slaughter of our colleagues and their families by the Israeli military and government”. It notes that “Reporters in the besieged Gaza Strip are contending with extensive power outages, food and water shortages and a breakdown of the medical system. They have been killed while visibly working as press, as well as at night in their homes.”

Tragic times, but let me not forget to wish readers a very happy Diwali! 

Write to [email protected] 

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multipurpose site for ROV ,drone services,mineral ores,ingots,agro commodities-oils,pulses,fatty acid distillate,rice,tomato concentrate,animal waste -gallstones,maggot feed ,general purpose niche -consumer goods,consumer electronics and all .Compedium of news around the world,businesses,ecommerce ,mineral,machines promotion and affiliation and just name it ...

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