The Supreme Court. (HT archive)
The Supreme Court. (HT archive)

SC to hear journalists’ plea for probe into Pegasus next week

Mentioning the petition before a bench headed by CJI NV Ramana, senior advocate Kapil Sibal said, “This matter has huge ramifications on civil liberties as it involves surveillance of opposition leaders, journalists and activists. Its creating waves not just in India but abroad as well”
By Abraham Thomas
UPDATED ON JUL 31, 2021 01:45 AM IST

The Supreme Court will hear next week a petition filed by senior journalists N Ram and Sashi Kumar seeking a judicial inquiry into the alleged surveillance of Indian citizens using Israeli Pegasus spyware and to identify the entities responsible for this.

Mentioning the petition before a bench headed by Chief Justice of India N V Ramana, senior advocate Kapil Sibal said, “This matter has huge ramifications on civil liberties as it involves surveillance of opposition leaders, journalists and activists. It is creating waves not just in India but abroad as well.”

The bench, also comprising justice Surya Kant, agreed to Sibal’s request of taking up the matter next week without specifying a date.

The journalists demanded an inquiry into the alleged snooping by a retired or sitting judge of the top court to ascertain the extent of surveillance on Indian citizens and identify the entities responsible for it.

In their plea, the two journalists said the government has not categorically denied obtaining Pegasus licences to conduct surveillance in the response given in Parliament by minister of electronics and information technology Ashwini Vaishnaw, and sought an exact response from the Centre in this regard. It also noted that no steps have been taken by the Centre to ensure a credible and independent investigation.

Pegasus, developed by Israeli firm NSO Group, is an extremely sophisticated military software, the petition said, adding that “such mass surveillance using a military-grade spyware abridges several fundamental rights and appears to represent an attempt to infiltrate, attack and destabilise independent institutions that act as critical pillars of our democratic set-up.”

The petition also stated that the snooping allegations must be viewed with seriousness as they impact the right to privacy and free speech protected under Articles 21 and 19(1)(a). Besides, the hacking of mobile phones using Pegasus spyware constitutes an offence punishable under various provisions of the Information Technology Act.

The petition claimed that surveillance has been done bypassing the legal regime provided under Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act which provides that surveillance can be done on grounds of public emergency or in the interest of public safety.

This is the third petition to be filed in the top court seeking a probe into the controversy over Pegasus software that erupted on July 18 after an international investigative consortium reported that phone numbers of many Indian ministers, politicians, activists, businessmen and journalists were among the 50,000 numbers that were potentially targeted worldwide by the NSO Group’s phone hacking software. A forensic analysis of phones of 10 of the targets in India proved they had been hacked or that there had been attempts to do so.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) member in the Rajya Sabha John Brittas and lawyer ML Sharma filed the other two petitions. The Court did not indicate whether these petitions will also be listed next week.

On Monday, the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal was the first to appoint a commission of inquiry comprising former Supreme Court judge, justice MB Lokur and retired chief justice of Calcutta high court, justice Jyotirmay Bhattacharya to look into the Pegasus issue.

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