In the early hours of a wet rainy morning in July of 2003, after hours of suspense and bureaucratic procedures, the Dosti or Friendship Bus left for a historic journey covering 500 kilometres (300 miles) from Delhi to Lahore. The bus service had remained in suspension for 18 months following the dastardly terror attack on the Indian Parliament. The direct cross border bus service resumed days after the hand of friendship offered by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
I was a rookie reporter and the details leading to this journey may find space in some memoir someday. The exuberance, the beating of drums at stopovers along the journey, the showering of rose petals and welcoming with garlands – and the historical significance of the journey – was overwhelming. There was a constant fear of committing some inadvertent error while reporting on the sensitive event for the public broadcaster Doordarshan.
Later that evening, I phoned my news editor from the hotel landline. The voice on the other side told me to be careful about telephonic conversations I had while I was in Lahore. My silence signalled to him I was confused. So, he added, “You are being watched and your calls are being monitored.” Just three months into the profession, I had learnt an important lesson on the job: I was in a high surveillance country.
Over the years, as a journalist covering foreign policy, I have travelled beyond our borders to report on diplomacy. Journalists and activists know how closely they are watched and tailed by handlers. One starts recognising handles from past visits. One gets used to the shenanigans of the spooks as part and parcel of a high surveillance country, often described as dysfunctional.
In 2012, when President Bashar Al Assad called for a national referendum to demonstrate his political strength, as part of an Indian media delegation invited to cover the event in Syria, it was a task to meet the Opposition for a frank conversation. To meet an 80-year-old frail political opponent Hassan Abdel Asim, the Mukhbarat or the intelligence agencies had to be dodged. In another discreet meeting with a critical political activist, I learnt how their mobile phones were on the radar, and just switching them off was not enough — one had to separate the battery from the blackberry handset.
These were journeys into countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. But in the world’s largest democracy- one would like to believe that some dystopian Orwellian state will not be normalised or legitimised. It is a wish and hope. Snooping as a tool to keep an eye on adversaries is not an overnight phenomenon in Indian politics. Rows have erupted in the past too with political repercussions for the government of the day. But the whispers in the corridors of increased monitoring of journalists since 2014 have grown louder. The first Pegasus row erupted in 2019 before Covid 19 changed the course of the world we live in.
Nearly a month ago, I was alarmed when Forbidden Stories (a network of journalists based in France) reached out to me through the Editors of The Wire, as a potential target of state surveillance.
I was deeply disturbed but not shocked.
My past experiences have taught me enough. The possible timeline of the hacking attempts was said to be the summer of 2018. I could hardly wrap my head around what specific events or stories could have led to this potential interest in my phone, my data and my conversations.
I was then the Deputy Editor of The Tribune — one of India’s oldest dailies and a widely read paper in the frontline states of Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir. I tried recalling foreign policy and security stories that I wrote for the paper and the people I met for stories.
“Why me?” was a question I asked myself, trying to make sense of it.
As a journalist, I have never shied away from questioning those in power — the basic principle of journalism. “The possibility that my sources may have been compromised was tremendously discomforting. That someone could be snooping on my personal life and intimate conversations was jarring. That I had no right to privacy as a citizen was frustrating.
A timely and transparent probe is the need of the hour. The government’s denial and political statements are far from convincing.
It took a while to convince myself that I should allow my data to be forensically investigated by a global lab to establish the snooping allegation.
Finally, I did it in the interest of pursuing a news story and an important global investigation by a consortium of leading media outlets. The forensics found that iMessage was the vulnerable entry point for the spyware but mercifully my phone was uncompromised. The gap of a few days between the dumping of the data to waiting to hear back from Phineas Rueckert, the journalist with Forbidden Stories in Paris leading the investigative collaboration, were difficult.
Since the forensic results came back I have disabled iMessages and FaceTime on my phone. I feel a bit smarter on tech alertness than I was.
Even as I joked with colleagues and friends about how featuring in the list of surveilled journalists was like a badge of honour, a voice in my head reminded me of how spyware was used to target Jamal Khashoggi.
As journalists, we will continue to tell stories that need telling and ask the questions that need to be asked. And to quote Marty Baron, the former Executive Editor of The Washington Post — a quote that veteran journalist Mort Rosenblum got printed on a T-shirt — “We are not at war with the administration. We are at work.”
Please stop snooping on the messengers.
Smita Sharma is the People’s Editor with India Ahead News. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.