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WhatsApp Snooping: ‘Hacking’ Dissent in India

WhatsApp Snooping: ‘Hacking’ Dissent in India

A victim journalist on what
that means and what must be done

By Nikita Lamba in Raipur, Chhattisgarh

In May and October, WhatsApp had issued notices that the messaging app had been used to hack into the phones of lawyers, journalists and human rights activists in India. StoriesAsia reached out to Shubhranshu Chaudhary who had also been cautioned by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab of having been under surveillance. Chaudhary has been working as a peace activist in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh to enable more people towards journalism through CGNet Swara in a region affected by Maoist insurgency.

Here are edited excerpts from the interview:

You have been associated with journalism for three decades. Could you tell us a bit about your journey and what inspired you to stay in this profession?

I got into journalism by accident when I was studying philosophy in Raipur University. I had started studying for engineering but I didn’t like that, I somehow passed B.Sc. I was eliminating things by figuring out what I didn’t want to do. I liked reading though. Then one day, a friend, who was working in Deshbandhu (a local newspaper), told me that there was a vacancy in the office and asked me if I would have liked to go for an interview there. I went and that’s how my career began. It wasn’t a well-thought, planned action. Since then, it has continued in different ways.

For many, what I do now won’t qualify as journalism but for us it is much the same. With CGNet Swara, we are helping others do journalism. What I understand is that journalism is very aristocratic whereas it can be democratic; through CGNet Swara, a concept that we are experimenting with. For example, when a majority controls politicians, it theoretically results in better politics. Journalism is a top-down model, instead of raja and maharaja, we have owners.

However, could there be a democratic model in journalism? Politicians experimented with this model but nobody tried to do this within journalism and that is the possibility that we are experimenting with. We are trying to create a democratic model of journalism, which would be economically viable, practical and responsible.

Internet-based social media is democratic but it is not responsible, and additionally, it is not “social” because a majority of people are not on it yet. The majority of the people feel more comfortable in speaking and listening, rather than reading or writing. Media requires some form of order and a kind of verification of facts. I think that building a platform for communication, which is democratic and responsible, is possible. We call this journalism but it is not the “eight killed 19 injured” journalism because we are facilitating others do journalism.

What keeps me in this profession is, I’d say, that I haven’t found anything better.

In your opinion, what is the role of journalists? How do you perceive the Indian media with regard to this role? Should journalists seek to speak truth to power as one of their responsibilities?

We are watchdogs; our first work is to ask questions. We are cynical and we will always be critical. Sometimes I have found that we are very unfair because we are always attacking, asking questions and that’s the easiest thing to do but that is what our job is – to attack, to question and to not take things at their face value. We are the eyes and ears of society. We can see that the sun is rising and setting but perhaps that is not the truth. We need the help of experts. We need to have a nose – it is a primary quality of a journalist. We need to find out whether what is happening is correct or not.

This is happening less and less now.

How have you seen people’s and government’s attitudes towards journalists shift through your tenure? If so, how?

From 1988 to 1990, I worked with BBC and then I took a break for a year and went to be part of Narmada Bachao Andolan, a social movement resisting large dam projects on river Narmada in western India. I used to come to Chhattisgarh often to report on the Maoist issue. I knew some of the players and got connected to more in Raipur. While I was talking to them, this idea of democratising communication came to me. They told me that what I was writing was what I was supposed to write, and not what their story actually was. They were pointing out the divide between “us” and “them”. They pointed out that it was undemocratic.

Another such example is that of business tycoon Dirubhai Ambani. He owned Vimal Suiting Shirting, and then he started an institute in Ahmedabad in western Gujarat state called Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad. One of my friends was a teacher there in 1982 or 1983. They were having tea in the canteen and she asked him (Mr. Ambani) whether she could ask him a personal question. He agreed, and she asked him why he started the communication college when he was in the polyester business. What he said then makes sense even now. He said that if one wants to be powerful, they needed to control communication and own media. He said that if he owned media, he could make sure that news outlets would report when he wanted something to be heard and not report when he didn’t.

Media now is more and more controlled. If we take a look at the economy of newspapers, we can see that the big ones are heavily subsidised. Deshbandhu, a communist newspaper, would cost Rs 10 to print but we sold it for Rs 2. That means that someone else was paying Rs 8. Times of India was owned by the British before Independence. It only changed hands but the system remained the same. Indian Express is still owned by corporates, which explains that it is the same aristocratic and subsidised model. There is no free lunch. Somebody pays for it and whoever pays decides what food you will have. I feel that this is something that has been done very purposefully so that they can decide what kind of communication we can be allowed to have. We journalists, therefore, keep talking about Pakistan and about the Ram Mandir (temple) – all the things that won’t change the status quo. Nobody asks where the money is going and why the poor remains poor, if not getting poorer.

First newspaper took birth in India and then television broadcast. Radio has still not been allowed to disseminate news. India is the world’s largest democracy but we have one radio station for news, just like in China. For the poor, this is the same aristocracy even though they vote. So politically, democracy has been established, whereas economically, there is none. These questions have not been raised in relation to economics or communication. There are attempts also to erode the democracy that has been established politically. Barring some parts of the country, we don’t have military rule yet. Unless there is a paradigm of communication where the majority controls communication, the industry will be playing into the hands of the few.

Now, the number of people who are controlling the media is reducing, so it is natural that it will work for interests of a smaller number of people. We never question who is running the show. It doesn’t matter who makes the government because the person behind the government is not affected by it. It’s like a game of football where people are engaged only as spectators. There has been a creation of a society of bikharis (beggars) who go around begging every morning for news. Newspapers that have a production cost of Rs 150 are being sold for Rs 5. So basically, we are begging for news and knowledge, and the news and the knowledge that we are given access to is only what they want us to know. It is very controlled.

You started CGNet Swara with the aim to empower people, indeed also to promote citizen journalism through the means of social media. However, it is another social media application that was used as a medium to spy on you. Could you comment on this?

The powers always like to keep an eye on what is happening because it is necessary for them. That is why every government has an intelligence department. We are living in difficult times; there are many terrorist organisations, so surveillance becomes necessary. However, this should be done legally. The government of India keeps an eye on 4,000 to 8,000 phones every year legally. I know that my phone was under surveillance although I was never informed about it. My email had been breached; I know because what I had written to someone had been published in the press verbatim. My only wish is that all this should be done legally.

There has to be a procedure because surveillance needs to be authorised by someone. The laws are there but perhaps they are not adequate. Further, while strengthening this law, there needs to be debates in society about its adequacy. If this surveillance of journalists, human rights activist and lawyers had been done under the purview of the law then nobody would have any objections.

Electronic communication is like writing a postcard. It goes through a server that is based in the USA, and we can only be naïve to think that nobody is looking. I was watching a film about Khashoggi that showed that the CIA was keeping track of the messages of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. They had also been attacked by Pegasus. This is a good opportunity to have debates and make better laws in India. Otherwise, the mudslinging on each other is not going to take us very far.

It has been alleged that Pegasus, the very software that has been used to hack into WhatsApp accounts in India, was involved in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. What according to you does this reflect about the status of the profession in India? 

Things have become more dangerous. Earlier, only our phones were tapped because no higher technology was available. Now there is Pegasus and other such companies. Perhaps there are some that are even darker, ones that we don’t even know about. One needs to be very cautious.

The work that I engage with is peaceful, and we don’t do anything illegal. However, we may have things that we do not want to share at the moment with the wider public. For example, information that may put some people at risk.

This is an attack on our fundamental right and we would not like to be snooped upon, let alone hacking of our phones, and listening in to even this conversation, getting access to all our emails and contact lists which we have a right to keep private.

I have just returned from a weeklong digital security workshop. When I was working with BBC, I would not share anything on the phone that I did not want to make public knowledge. I would use a public phone service to make phone calls or meet sources personally. Similarly, we will have to learn things to secure ourselves. For example, on email, you can use encryption. Perhaps Signal is one notch better than WhatsApp.

Right now, it is as if the government had made a rule saying, since the times are dangerous, we should all have only glass walls. However, we should have the right to put curtains and that is what we are trying to do. We are going to have to make use of simple tricks like covering up the camera of our phones and laptops, or switching off our phones if we don’t want anyone to know what we are talking about. We will have to learn how to protect ourselves on our own. The law is not helping. We would expect the law to protect us – this is what the hue and cry should be about. I don’t have anything to hide so I don’t have a problem with them keeping an eye on me, but at the same time, there is some privacy that needs to be maintained.

According to figures from the Committee to Protect Journalists, since 1992, 50 journalists have been killed in India while they were working. Gauri Lankesh was one such journalist but there have been no concrete findings. Since 2011, the number of attacks against media professionals has increased. Is there a reason that this increase?

The level of tolerance is going down, the respect for law is decreasing and arrogance is increasing among the people who have power. Small numbers of people have become very rich which is the reason behind this arrogance and impatience. They are able to get away with things because of the power. Anybody who questions this is under threat. The new world demands that Khashoggi be killed. This was more prevalent when there was no democracy but democracy increased and autocratic rule decreased. However, now there is a rise of democracies controlled by money.

For example, in countries like Russia, what I fear is that mafias and their money control political parties. That is what is the current trend. There is a rise of fly-by-night millionaires and billionaires which is what brings this increase in arrogance and impunity.  Earlier, under aristocracy or military rule, it was muscle power that dictated terms.

There needs to be a system where more and more people participate in civil society.

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In Chhattisgarh, when human rights activists and journalists dissent against the government, they are labeled as Naxalites (Maoists). They then start to spend their time grappling with the law instead of spending that time on their jobs. Do you have any thoughts about this?

It is becoming more and more dangerous and difficult to ask questions because we get labeled as either with the government or against the government. I am not with you neither am I against you. I have a right to be in the middle. I am neither with the Congress (party) nor with the Bharatiya Janata Party; I am neither with the Maoists, nor am I with the police. The middle path is possible and that space is reducing which becomes very dangerous. I will question the Maoists and I will question the police.

The last one week, I have spent on learning tricks on how to safeguard myself and it’s an absolute waste of time, energy and money. I should have been using that time for my work. Now that has become a priority for me, to make sure that nobody plants a letter, say addressed to the Maoists, in my mail and implicate me in the name of that letter, which could send me to jail for years. The phone nowadays has everything. It has my email, my address and a lot of other things and therefore the scope for an attack has become wider. As a consequence of this, I have to invest my time and energy towards this as well. If they (the attackers, whoever they may be) walk one step ahead, I have to walk two steps ahead but those two steps are an investment. It is part of the game and it is becoming dangerous.

Laws, such as on sedition, have been used to silence dissent in India, and human rights activists have been targeted and imprisoned. In such an environment, what remedy is available for journalists who seek to speak truth to power?

I think, for journalists, the bigger problem is that of the system. So far, I don’t know of journalists who have been targeted under sections such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or the National Security Act but these are dangerous laws that are prone to misuse. In fact they have been misused. In the Babri Masjid verdict, the court has decided on a religious matter. This was a political matter that should have been decided upon after debates and conversations. Why do we need to involve law but that is what has been done. In a similar manner laws are being misused.

I may not disagree with the State’s need to do certain things but laws should always be respected and not misused. If law is misused then law should come to the rescue as well. There is a law in circulation in Chhattisgarh at the moment, called the Journalists’ Protection Act. I don’t know if it is adequate or not but these things should be taken forward.

There are a lot of rumours about the Indian government’s attempt towards mass surveillance. In your opinion, does the WhatsApp hack confirm these rumours?

The State has always been surveying people. The former Home Secretary had gone on record to say that 4,000-8,000 people were being snooped upon every year. I was snooped upon when I worked in Kashmir in the 1990’s. My phone was breached in the year 2010. So this is nothing new. Only the scale of surveillance has increased. There are many instruments and we have only found out about only one. I don’t know what procedure was followed to snoop on the 8,000 people. All the States try to keep an eye out, Maoists do the same and so does anyone who has any kind of authority. Everyone would like to keep an eye on their opponents.

The Constitution gives us a fundamental right to privacy and the State should respect that.

You have claimed that you received a message from WhatsApp reporting that you had been under surveillance. Retrospectively, were there any telltale signs in your phone or otherwise that there was something not quite right?

I cannot prove it. This time, people called up, so I found out. But besides that, I don’t know what has been taken from my phone. I don’t know if the phone getting stuck and hearing background noises or echoes in the phone call are proof enough to know that my phone is getting tapped. I was more than suspicious but neither can I prove nor can I say who was conducting the surveillance. However, I am sure that this will be continuing.

In the current environment, what would your advice be to fellow journalists and human rights defenders?

My advice will be that we do our job and earn our living, but also create a paradigm where we can do our work without hindrance. Today, we are only puppets (as journalists). I am not blaming anyone. Even when India was under the British rule, people went about doing their daily work but they also contributed towards freeing the country. There needs to be a fight towards freeing the media, which is controlled by a very small number of people with a lot of money. We are still able to do things but it is an aristocratic model of mass communication where our agenda is set by someone which isn’t always towards the public good.

The revolution for communication has not begun yet. We need to decide whether we want to be stenographers or journalists, and it is very difficult to become a journalist. Being a journalist is an exception right now. For now, we are just cogs in a wheel and that is a fault of the older generation of journalists.

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StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from 16 South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, seeks to replace the present-day parade of faceless numbers with humanising narrative nonfiction – a largely ignored journalistic genre in the region.

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