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Editors N Ram and Sashi Kumar file petition to force government to acknowledge Pegasus use

The Pegasus Project and its revelations on surveillance have prompted others including a Rajya Sabha MP to approach the apex court and seek a judicial probe into the matter. 

Senior news editors N Ram and Sashi Kumar filed a petition* before the Supreme Court to compel the Indian government to directly answer if it purchased the Pegasus spyware, Live Law first reported. The government has not denied using the spyware, and since 2019, has been evasive on the subject in Parliament. MediaNama confirmed the petition with Kumar. The petition brings up the following questions:

  • Has targeted surveillance been conducted on journalists, doctors, lawyers, opposition politicians, ministers, constitutional functionaries and civil society activists by illegally hacking into their phones using the Pegasus spyware?
  • What are the implications of such a hack? Do they represent an attempt by agencies and organisations to muzzle and chill the exercise of free speech and expression of dissent in India?

According to a list of prayers in the petition obtained by Live Law, Ram and Kumar have asked for the following:

  1. Compel the government to disclose if it used Pegasus spyware.
  2. Institute an enquiry by a sitting or retired Supreme Court justice.
  3. Pass any other orders in the interest of justice.

Why this matters: The Pegasus Project reports — first released in India by The Wire — has revealed that political leaders, journalists, military officials, intelligence agency officials, a former Supreme Court staffer, the Dalai Lama’s entourage, and several others were subjected or potentially subjected to a spyware attack that was able to hijack targets’ phones. The multimillion-dollar technology is sold by an Israeli company called NSO Group, which only sells the technology to vetted governments and its agencies. The government has consistently avoided confirming that it licensed Pegasus. If the Supreme Court forces it to admit that it licensed Pegasus, the government will have admitted to buying hacking tools; hacking is illegal in India.

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Three petitions on Pegasus in SC

Kumar and Ram’s petition says that if borne out, the revelations have significant consequences for democracy:

The Pegasus hack is a direct attack on communicational, intellectual and informational privacy, and critically endangers the meaningful exercise of privacy in these contexts. The right to privacy extends to use and control over one’s mobile phone/electronic device and any interception by means of hacking/tapping is an infraction of Article 21. Further, the use of the Pegasus spyware to conduct surveillance represents a grossly disproportionate invasion of the right to privacy. — N Ram and Sashi Kumar v. Union of India petition, via Live Law

The petition further argues that the potential spying breaks surveillance laws, chills free speech, and is punishable under hacking prohibitions under Section 66 of the Information Technology Act, 2000.

The Supreme Court now has three petitions reacting to the Pegasus Project’s revelations. They are:

  • N Ram & Sashi Kumar v. Union of India
  • ML Sharma v. Union of India: ML Sharma, an advocate noted for filing several Public Interest Litigation suits before the Supreme Court, moved the court on July 22, Live Law reported, suggesting that the government was “snoop[ing] citizen of India for their vested political interest,” and that the snooping violated the constitution and would attract criminal penalties.
  • John Brittas v. Union of India: Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament John Brittas of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) on Saturday approached the Supreme Court asking it to institute a court-monitored investigation into the Pegasus revelations. Brittas said the government was being evasive and potentially violating the law by engaging in the alleged snooping. “As the interceptions are said to be done in the gadgets of judges and supreme court staffer there is a strong interference with the administration of justice. This is unprecedented and shocking the conscience of the judicial system,” the petition reportedly said.

*Disclaimer: Nikhil Pahwa, the founding editor of MediaNama, has been asked to assist with the drafting of petitions related to the Pegasus spyware revelations. 

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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