The Supreme Court on Tuesday urged petitioners seeking an inquiry into the Pegasus spyware allegations to refrain from engaging in “parallel debates” on social media, Live Law reported.
“All petitioners are expected to answer the queries of the court through the debate in the court,” Chief Justice of India NV Ramana observed. “You have faith in the system. There must be discipline. If they [petitioners] want to bring anything to the notice of the court, you bring through affidavit.”
A three-judge bench of Ramana and Justices Vineet Saran and Surya Kant was hearing a batch of petitions on the allegations that the spyware was used to monitor several politicians, journalists and activists in India.
While addressing advocate Kapil Sibal, representing N Ram, former editor of The Hindu and one of the petitioners, the chief justice said: “You are not only a senior counsel but we respect you a lot. You have been a minister also. There must be some discipline...we ask some questions from all of you, in the adjudication, the bench will ask questions.”
Ramana added: “Sometimes, it will be inconvenient, but both sides have to face this music. We expect answers.”
Sibal and the other lawyers agreed with the chief justice. “When the matter is in court, there should be no public statements of any nature,” the advocate and Congress leader said, according to Live Law.
Appearing for the Centre on Tuesday, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said that he had received copies from counsels of all petitioners, except former Union minister Yashwant Sinha. He sought more time to respond on the matter and requested the court not to take it up before Friday.
Ramana then posted the matter to August 16 for the next hearing.
Senior Advocate CU Singh, appearing for one of the petitioners, requested the court to issue a notice to the Centre immediately. However, Ramana said that the court will take a call on the matter on Monday.
Apart from Sinha and Ram, the Editors Guild of India, Asian College of Journalism Chairperson Sashi Kumar, Rajya Sabha MP John Brittas and advocate ML Sharma have filed pleas in the Supreme Court seeking an investigation into the Pegasus controversy.
Journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Prem Shankar Jha, SNM Abdi, Rupesh Kumar Singh and Ipsa Shataksi, reported to have been on the list of potential Pegasus spyware targets, had also moved the Supreme Court.
During the previous hearing in the case on August 5, the the court had observed that the allegations of surveillance, if correct, were serious in nature.
Pegasus surveillance allegations
The alleged misuse of the spyware came to light earlier this month 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”.
The list of potential targets in India includes 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 then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment.
The spyware is licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group. The company insists that it licences its software only to “vetted governments” with good human-rights records and that Pegasus is intended to target criminals.
On Monday, the defence ministry told Rajya Sabha that it has “not had any transaction with NSO Group Technologies”. This is the government’s first direct reply to repeated questions from the Opposition on whether the administration used the Pegasus spyware.
On July 19, Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who himself happens to be on the list of potential targets of the spyware, told Parliament that illegal surveillance was not possible in India.