EDITORIAL: It is understandable why the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) - a US-based non-profit, non-governmental organisation that promotes press freedom and defends rights of journalists - is up in arms over investigative reports that accuse some governments of using the controversial Israeli spying software Pegasus to hack the telephones of at least 180 journalists across the world. Something like this was bound to reach the headlines sooner or later once news about governments employing Pegasus to keep tabs on politicians came out. It's no surprise at all that the Israeli company NSO Group, which produces the spyware, stands by its original position that it only sells the software to "vetted governments" and that too only to help them in their fights against terrorism.
Yet it's also pretty clear that nobody buys such politically correct statements any longer and something will need to be done about this phenomenon that has empowered certain agencies in certain countries to spy on not just local opposition politicians but also presidents and prime ministers of other countries. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's security apparatus must have overhauled his personal digital security regime as soon as they found out that the Indians had used Pegasus to hack his phone. And French President Emanuel Macron has reportedly changed his phone set altogether to protect the sanctity of his official as well as personal communications.
This is all very alarming, no doubt, and it gets worse when one considers that they've been able to glean this much from the little information that has come out so far. And there's nothing to suggest that this isn't just the tip of the iceberg so there's no telling yet if a lot more doesn't lie just below the surface. This is, of course, part of the downside of modern technology and something that should be deplored and curbed. Governments can and do make pretty convincing cases for engaging in commercial contracts with international companies that enable them to carry out espionage activities, especially those meant for anti-terror purposes, with something as simple as a laptop computer. But surely something needs to be done about it when such privilege is abused so easily and what was supposed to counter terror is instead used to undermine civil liberties.
It's no secret that far too many governments in today's world are still far too fond of gagging the press, so to speak, and happily employ intimidatory tactics like "physical abuse and legal reprisals", as CPJ's Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney so rightly put it. And giving such governments the power to go a step further and spy on the professional and personal lives of journalists, who put so much at stake just to do their jobs to begin with, ought to make companies that provide such software complicit in violations of the law on part of their client regimes.
It can only be hoped that the more responsible capitals of the world will realise just what is at stake and join hands to combat such gross misuse of some very precious technology. Nobody can possibly argue against equipping all governments that face terror threats with the best technology possible to enable them to win their fights and protect their people. But everybody must also accept that these are very sensitive areas and no government should be allowed to cross the line when it comes to violations of personal freedoms of individuals and professionals.
The Israelis have long been notorious for pushing the limits of international law with a number of their official initiatives. Spyware technology is just one point on a long list that allegedly contains state sanctioned bio-warfare technology, chemical weapons technology, intrusive telecommunication technology, and a whole lot more. And the fact that capitals like New Delhi are cozying up to Tel Aviv, when both are known to go the extra mile to violently suppress democratic freedoms in lands they occupy, sounds loud alarm bells for capitals like Islamabad and Beijing. Therefore, there's every reason for Pakistan to be eager to join any international effort meant to check and counter such easy sale of potentially harmful technology like Pegasus.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021