Journalists N Ram and Sashi Kumar on Tuesday, July 27, moved the Supreme Court seeking a probe headed by a retired or sitting judge into the sensational Pegasus snooping allegations that have triggered a political row and rocked the Monsoon Session of Parliament. In the petition, N Ram, who is the former Chief Editor of The Hindu, and Sashi Kumar, the founder of Asianet news channel, have asked the Union government to disclose whether it or any of its agencies obtained a license for or have used the Israeli spyware called Pegasus “directly or indirectly to carry out surveillance on Indian citizens.”
This is the third petition filed in the apex court seeking a probe into the investigative reports published by 17 global media outlets that over 300 verified numbers— including those belonging to two ministers, over 40 journalists, three opposition leaders and one sitting judge, besides scores of businesspersons and activists in India— could have been possible targets of Israeli spyware Pegasus.
Naming the Union government, IT Ministry and Ministry of Communications as respondents, the petition has said that the Union government has “made absolutely no attempt” to conduct any credible investigation into these “extremely concerning allegations of mass surveillance,” more so, as the NSO Group which created Pegasus has said that it only deals with “vetted governments.”
The petition poses two questions that have not yet been answered— “Has targeted surveillance been conducted on journalists, doctors, lawyers, opposition politicians, ministers, constitutional functionaries and civil society activists by illegally hacking into their phones using the Pegasus spyware? What are the implications of such a hack? Do they represent an attempt by agencies and organisations to muzzle and chill the exercise of free speech and expression of dissent in India?”
It adds that the use of the Pegasus spyware to conduct surveillance represents a “grossly disproportionate invasion” of the right to privacy. “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,” N Ram and Sashi Kumar have said in their petition. “It is also concerning to note that the Respondents (Union government, IT Ministry and Ministry of Communications) have not categorically ruled out obtaining Pegasus licenses to conduct surveillance in their response, and have taken no steps to ensure a credible and independent investigation into these extremely serious allegations.”
It also said that the targeted hacking or interception of journalists, civil society activists, government ministers and opposition politicians “seriously compromises” the fundamental right to free speech and expression. “It has an obvious chilling effect on expression by threatening invasion into the most core and private aspects of a person’s life,” the petition added.
The journalists have said that they had no alternative remedy, much less an equally efficacious remedy. They have hence moved the Supreme Court, asking it to direct the Union government to disclose whether the Government of India or its agencies have obtained a license or conducted surveillance using Pegasus, and asked that an inquiry commission headed by a sitting or retired judge be formed to probe these allegations.
Earlier, CPI(M) MP John Brittas and advocate ML Sharma moved the Supreme Court seeking a court-monitored probe into the allegations. West Bengal, meanwhile, has formed a committee comprising former Supreme Court judge Justice Madan Lokur and former Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court Justice J Bhattacharya.