The Editors Guild of India on Wednesday demanded an inquiry by a Supreme Court-monitored independent committee into the alleged use of the Pegasus spyware to hack into phones of several citizens, including journalists, political leaders and activists.

The Editors Guild said that the alleged instances of hacking of phones was an “unconstitutional attack” on the freedom of speech and press.

“This act of snooping essentially conveys that journalism and political dissent are now equated with ‘terror’,” the journalists’ body said in a statement. “How can a constitutional democracy survive if governments do not make an effort to protect freedom of speech and allow surveillance with such impunity?”

On Sunday, a leaked list of 50,000 potential targets of the spyware, “concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens” was released. The list was accessed by Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, which shared it with 17 news organisations as part of the Pegasus Project.

The spyware is developed, marketed and licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group. The company said that it licenses its software only to “vetted governments” and that Pegasus is meant to be targeted at criminals.

Taking note of NSO’s claim, the Editors Guild on Wednesday said that it deepened the suspicion of involvement of the Indian government agencies in spying on its own citizens.

“This is a moment that demands deep introspection and inquiry into the kind of society we are heading towards, and how far we may have veered away from the democratic values enshrined in our constitution,” the statement said.

The press body added that the Supreme Court-monitored inquiry committee should include journalists and civil society members to investigate the “extent and intent” of the alleged surveillance.

Pegasus snooping in India

The list revealed on Sunday includes phone numbers used by over 40 Indian journalists, Opposition leaders including Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, two Union ministers and virologist Gagandeep Kang. Former Election Commissioner of India Ashok Lavasa and an ex-Supreme Court staffer who accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment also featured on the list.

Information and Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who is also on the list, said in the Parliament that illegal surveillance was not possible in India. The government, however, has not yet categorically denied using the Pegasus spyware on Indian citizens.

The revelations triggered a huge political row in India, with the Opposition staging protests in the Parliament on the first two days of the ongoing Monsoon Session. The Congress has demanded that Union Home Minister Amit Shah be sacked and called for an inquiry into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the alleged surveillance.