Avoid ‘parallel debate’ on Pegasus issue: Supreme Court
The Supreme Court on Tuesday took exception to a “parallel debate” by petitioners outside the courts on the alleged surveillance of Indian citizens with the Israeli Pegasus spyware, saying if they are using the legal system they must have faith in it.
Even as the Union government received time till Monday to respond to a clutch of petitions demanding a court-monitored independent investigation into the alleged snooping, the top court asked petitioners to refrain from debating the issue on public platforms while it was adjudicating the matter.
“Any of the petitioners who is interested in this matter and is saying things in the newspapers, we expect they will answer our queries through a proper channel in the court hall and not outside. We expect petitioners to understand there will be a debate in the court. Questions will be asked. They must have faith in the system. But this parallel debate, parallel discussion..” the bench, headed by Chief Justice of India NV Ramana told the counsel for the petitioners.
“There must be some discipline. We asked some questions. There is an adjudication process. Sometimes it may be inconvenient to you and sometimes convenient but that is how this process is. Both sides have to face the music. If they want to bring something to our notice, they should file those documents here,” added the bench, which also comprised justices Vineet Saran and Surya Kant.
CJI Ramana said that it was a message from all the three judges on the bench to the petitioners, which included advocate ML Sharma; former union minister Yashwant Sinha, Rajya Sabha MP John Brittas; the Editors Guild of India (EGI); journalists N Ram and Sashi Kumar; journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Rupesh Kumar Singh, Ipshita Shatakshi, SNM Abdi, and Prem Shankar Jha; and civil rights activists Jagdeep S Chhokar and Narendra Mishra.
At this point, senior advocate Kapil Sibal said: “When I was appearing for Mr N Ram last time, the court had asked me why Indians were not there in the order of the California court although the petition mentioned it. He was severely trolled for it.”
The CJI replied: “This is the problem of taking one line out of context. But debates must not cross the limit. If they are using the system, they should have faith in the system. This is the message from all of us.”
Sibal agreed that petitioners should not make any kind of public statements when their petitions were being heard by the bench.
Meanwhile, solicitor general Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, said that he will need some time to get instructions on the matter from the government. “I have received most of the petitions. Let me get instructions from the government and come back,” he submitted.
The court accepted this request and fixed the matter for Monday next. “We will take a call (on issuance of notice) on Monday,” remarked the CJI. Lawyers for the petitioners also got the liberty to file additional documents in the case.
Senior advocate Vikas Singh, representing former RSS ideologue and political activist KN Govindacharya, informed the bench that Govindacharya has also moved court. Singh pointed out that Govindacharya came to the court in 2019 for an investigation into the alleged surveillance by Pegasus but his plea was not entertained. “My client went to the parliamentary committee after that but nothing has happened,” added the lawyer. The court agreed to hear Govindacharya’s petition along with the other pleas on Monday.
Last week, the bench agreed to seek a response from the Union government as it asked the petitioners to serve copies of their pleadings on the union government to ensure that a law officer remains present in the court on the day.
During the hour-long proceedings on August 5, the bench said the allegations were serious in nature if the reports are correct and posed three questions to the petitioners.
The first was why they came to the court after a gap of almost two years since the first reports on the use of Pegasus spyware were out way back in May 2019. This is a reference to WhatsApp revealing then that NSO’s software was used to send malware to more than 1,400 phones.
The second question was on whether any of the petitioners lodged a first information report or a criminal complaint against alleged illegal interception of their phones.
The third related to the existence of any empirical evidence to corroborate the claims of the infractions.
The Pegasus row erupted on July 18 after an international investigative consortium reported that the phones of many Indian ministers, politicians, activists, businessmen and journalists were among the 50,000 that were potentially targeted by Pegasus, Israeli company NSO Group’s phone hacking software. According to this consortium -- which included Washington Post, The Guardian, La Monde, and India’s The Wire, among other publications -- Pegasus can switch on a target’s phone camera and microphone, as well as access data on the device, effectively turning a phone into a pocket spy.
The list database was first obtained by France-based non-profit Forbidden Stories, which shared the information with the reporting partners. The devices of at least 67 of the numbers were analysed by Amnesty International and of these, 37 had signs of being hacked by Pegasus. Of these 37, 10 were in India.
NSO says its software is sold only to government customers after vetting by Israeli authorities. The Indian government has neither confirmed nor denied that it procured or used Pegasus, and has repeatedly ruled out any illegal surveillance in India.
On Monday, the Union defence ministry replied on the floor of the parliament that it has not had any transaction with the Israeli-based firm.
To be sure, as the methodology of the investigation into the alleged snooping explains, the presence of a number on the database of the alleged targeted numbers does not indicate an individual’s phone was hacked — just that it was of interest.