The Editors Guild of India on Sunday urged the Supreme Court-appointed panel looking into allegations of surveillance using the Pegasus spyware to take cognisance of an investigative report by The New York Times. On January 28, the newspaper had reported the Indian government had purchased the Pegasus spyware from Israel in 2017.

The newspaper reported that India had bought the spyware as part of “a package of sophisticated weapons and intelligence gear worth roughly $2 billion – with Pegasus and a missile system as the center-pieces”.

In July, several media organisations across the world had reported on the use of Pegasus, which has been developed by the NSO Group. In India, The Wire had reported that 161 Indians were spied on using Pegasus.

The NSO Group has said that the spyware can only be sold to “vetted governments”.

In a letter to retired Supreme Court judge Justice RV Raveendran, the Editors Guild of India requested the committee to to seek responses from the Union government, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, and secretaries of the ministries that may have been involved in the alleged 2017 deal.

Justice Raveendran is the head of the three-member technical committee appointed by the Supreme Court on October 27 to investigate allegations about the Pegasus spyware.

In its letter, the press body noted that the Supreme Court had asked the committee to investigate and determine “whether any Pegasus suite of software was acquired by the respondent Union of India, or any state government, or any central agency or any state agency for use against citizens of India”.

The letter then pointed to the New York Times report and said that it has serious allegations against the use of the spyware by the Indian government.

The guild also requested the committee to keep its proceedings open with respect to calling witnesses and their responses.

Before the panel was formed, the press body had in July demanded an inquiry by a Supreme Court-monitored independent committee into the alleged use of the spyware.

Congress seeks privilege motion against IT minister

Meanwhile, Leader of the Congress legislature party in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, on Sunday demanded that a privilege motion be moved against Union Minister for Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw for allegedly misleading Parliament on the Pegasus row, reported PTI.

In a letter to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla government, Chowdhury said that Union government had maintained on the floor of the House that it had nothing to do with Pegasus and that it never bought the spyware.

“In light of the latest revelations by New York Times, it appears that the Modi government has misled Parliament and the Supreme Court and lied to the people of India,” he said.

The Congress leader also alleged the government had “lied” to the Supreme Court when it was directly questioned about purchasing and using the spyware. He also pointed out that in an affidavit in the Supreme Court, the government had denied “any and all” of the allegations against it on the Pegasus matter.

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Allegations on Pegasus

In July, a leaked list of more than 50,000 phone numbers “concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens”, was accessed by Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International. It became the basis of a global investigation called the Pegasus Project in which 17 media organisations collaborated.

Among Pegasus’ potential targets were many Opposition leaders, including Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, former Election Commissioner of India Ashok Lavasa, The Wire founders Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu and even the former Supreme Court staffer who had accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment.

More than 40 journalists and activists were also on the list.

Opposition leaders in India had protested vociferously against allegations of illegal surveillance, and pleas were filed in the Supreme Court against the government.

The government in August and September had fought off criticism following the media exposés, claiming the reports about Pegasus were “conspiracies”. It had claimed it had been brought up to “derail India’s growth” and as revenge for India’s supposedly efficient handling of the coronavirus pandemic.