The Editors Guild of India has approached the Supreme Court, seeking a probe by a Special Investigation Team into reports that the government used Israeli-made Pegasus spyware to monitor scores of journalists, activists and politicians, Live Law reported on Tuesday.
In a writ petition, the Editors Guild has asked the Supreme Court to seek details from the government on the spyware contract and a list of people targeted.
“Freedom of the press relies on non-interference by the government and its agencies in reporting of journalists, including their ability to securely and confidentially speaking with sources, investigate abuse of power and corruption, expose governmental incompetence, and speak with those in opposition to the government,” the petition said.
The Editors Guild said Indian citizens have a right to know if the government was infringing the limits of its authority. “All attempts to seek accountability and enforce constitutional limits through Parliamentary processes have been stonewalled,” the petition added.
The alleged misuse of Pegasus came to light in July when Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International accessed a database featuring more than 50,000 phone numbers “concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens”.
They shared the list with Indian news website The Wire and 16 other media organisations across the world, who did extensive reporting on the matter. Their investigation is called the Pegasus Project.
Plea by five journalists
Before the petition by the Editors Guild, five journalists, reported to have been on the list of potential Pegasus spyware targets, moved the Supreme Court. They argued that the alleged surveillance violated their fundamental rights.
The petitioners – Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Prem Shankar Jha, SNM Abdi, Rupesh Kumar Singh and Ipsa Shataksi – claimed that a forensic analysis of their phones showed they were targeted using the Israeli software which is only licensed to governments.
The five journalists pointed out that the Indian government was yet to categorically deny that it has not used the spyware.
“While the petitioner has no idea who is behind the Pegasus malware infection on his phone – the aforesaid stance taken by senior government functionaries has meant that the petitioner is left in a position where his most basic fundamental rights, i.e. his right to life, his right to privacy and his right to free speech have clearly been curtailed in a completely illegal manner,” the journalists’ petition said, according to Live Law.
The journalists added that the “deeply intrusive surveillance” will discourage whistleblowers from highlighting government misconduct and hurt transparency across the country.
The petitioners urged the court to declare the use of Pegasus illegal and unconstitutional. They also demanded that a judicial oversight mechanism be set up to handle complaints related to hacking and punish government officials responsible for it.
This is the first petition filed before the court by individuals who have been directly affected by the alleged hacking. Three other petitions related to the Pegasus controversy were filed by third parties in public interest, Live Law reported.
One petition has been filed by former editor of The Hindu N Ram and chairperson of Asian College of Journalism Sashi Kumar, another by Rajya Sabha MP John Brittas and the third by advocate ML Sharma. They all sought a court-monitored inquiry into the alleged surveillance using Pegasus. The Supreme Court will hear the petitions on August 5.
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The Pegasus surveillance row has created a huge controversy in India. The Opposition has repeatedly staged protests against in the Parliament, disrupting proceedings of the Monsoon Session.
The India list features over 40 journalists, two Union ministers, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, former Election Commissioner of India Ashok Lavasa and a former Supreme Court staffer who accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment. Industrialist Anil Ambani and former Central Bureau of Investigation Director Alok Verma were also potential targets of surveillance.
The participants in the Pegasus investigation have repeatedly clarified that not all the people on the list were successfully spied on but were potential targets of surveillance. Only a forensic analysis of a device can determine if it was infiltrated or subjected to a hack.