Pegasus row: SC to hear journalists’ plea for judicial probe

New Delhi: The Supreme Court will next week hear a plea by senior journalists N Ram and Sashi Kumar seeking an independent probe by a sitting or a retired judge into the Pegasus snooping matter.

A bench headed by Chief Justice N V Ramana on Friday took note of senior advocate Kapil Sibal’s submissions that the petition, which has been numbered after filing with the apex court registry, needed an urgent hearing in view of its wide ramifications.

The issue affects the freedom of citizens, the lawyer, appearing for Ram and Kumar said, and added that opposition leaders, journalists and even court staff have been put under surveillance.

It is creating waves in India and world over, Sibal said while pressing for an urgent hearing on the plea.

We will list it sometime in next week, the chief justice said.

The bench agreed to Sibal’s submission that the plea be listed next week except on Tuesday and Wednesday when he will be busy in other matter.

According to the plea, the alleged snooping represented an attempt by agencies and organisations to muzzle the exercise of free speech and expression of dissent in India. It seeks an investigation into the hacking of phones using the Pegasus spyware,

An international media consortium has reported that over 300 verified Indian mobile phone numbers were on a list of potential targets for surveillance using Israeli firm NSO’s Pegasus spyware.

The petition also seeks a direction to the Centre to disclose if the government or any of its agencies obtained licence for Pegasus spyware and used it, either directly or indirectly, to conduct surveillance in any manner.

The petitioners claimed that investigations involving several leading publications around the world have revealed that several Indians, including journalists, lawyers, ministers, opposition politicians and activists, have been identified as potential targets for surveillance using Pegasus software.

Forensic analysis by the Security Lab of Amnesty International of several mobile phones, belonging to people targeted for surveillance, has confirmed Pegasus-induced security breaches, the petition claimed.

The targeted surveillance using military-grade spyware is an unacceptable violation of the right to privacy which has been held to be a fundamental right under Articles 14 (equality before the law), 19 (freedom of speech and expression) and 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) by the Supreme Court, it added.

The hacking of phones belonging to journalists, doctors, lawyers, activists, ministers and opposition politicians seriously compromises the effective exercise of the fundamental right to free speech and expression, the petition said.

Such an act has an obvious chilling effect on expression by threatening invasion into the most core and private aspects of a person’s life, it added.

According to the petition, hacking of phones using the Pegasus spyware constituted a criminal offence punishable under Sections 66 (computer related offences), 66B (punishment for dishonestly receiving stolen computer resource or communication device), 66E (punishment for violation of privacy) and 66F (punishment for cyberterrorism) of the IT Act, punishable with imprisonment and/or fine.

The attack prima facie constitutes an act of cyber-terrorism that has several grave political and security ramifications, especially considering that the devices of government ministers, senior political figures and constitutional functionaries which may contain sensitive information have been targeted, it added.