The Supreme Court of India has ordered the formation of an independent committee to investigate the allegations against the Centre of using the illegal Pegasus spyware for unauthorised surveillance of several journalists, politicians, activists and lawyers across the country.
While observing that the court cannot be a “mute spectator” in cases where the central government raises the argument of “national security”, the court said on Wednesday “National security cannot be the bugbear that the judiciary shies away from, by virtue of its mere mentioning”, Live Law reported.
The Central Government, in last month’s hearing in the case had told the court that no additional affidavit will be filed regarding the use of the illegal spyware, citing “national security concerns.”
In one of the biggest international investigative journalism stories of 2021, titled the Pegasus project, it came to light in July that the phone numbers of at least 40 Indian journalists, as well as several politicians, activists and lawyers were part of a list of 50,000 mobile phone numbers across the globe that were targeted by the Pegasus spyware developed by a private Israeli firm. The investigation was carried out by a group of 16 news organisations across the globe, including The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The Wire.
The list included names of senior journalists who have done investigative reports against the ruling government. The list included The Wire’s founder-editors Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu, and its regular contributors Rohini Singh and senior columnist Prem Shankar Jha, along with freelance journalist Swati Chaturvedi, former Economics and Political Weekly editor Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, and former Indian Express journalist Sushant Singh.
In August, several journalists and politicians including N Ram, Sashi Kumar, CPI (M) leader and journalist John Brittas, Jagdeep Chokkar, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Rupesh Kumar Singh, SNM Abidi, Narendra Mishra, TMC leader Yashwant Sinha along with the Editor’s Guild of India filed a petition seeking a probe into the controversial Pegasus spyware scandal.
The petition sought a court-monitored inquiry by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) or a judicial probe into the alleged spying of several activists, politicians, journalists and constitutional bodies using the Pegasus spyware.
Based on the multiple petitions seeking probe in the case, on August 17, the Supreme Court had issued a notice to the Government of India.
During the last hearing, the Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for the petitioners had said, “We don’t want them to give any information as to security of the State. They must reply if Pegasus as a technology was used.”
On Wednesday, the court remarked “Although this Court should be circumspect in encroaching the domain of national security, no omnibus prohibition can be called for against judicial review.”
During the hearing on Wednesday, the court also observed that there was “no specific denial” by the central government of any facts mentioned in the petition, but, only an “omnibus and vague denial” in the “limited affidavit” filed by the government in reply which “cannot be sufficient”.
The three technical members of the committee that has been tasked with probing the spying allegations are Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, Professor (Cyber Security and Digital Forensics) and Dean, National Forensic Sciences University, Gandhinagar, Gujarat; Prabaharan P, Professor (School of Engineering), Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Amritapuri, Kerala; and Ashwin Anil Gumaste, Institute Chair Associate Professor (Computer Science and Engineering), Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, Maharashtra, The Indian Express reported.