Pegasus: Rajya Sabha Member John Brittas Moves Supreme Court To Probe Surveillance Allegations
John Brittas, a Member of Parliament from Kerala, has moved the Supreme Court seeking an investigation into the revelations of possible surveillance of a number of important public functionaries through the Pegasus spyware.
The petition has sought a court-monitored probe by a special investigative team into the reports published by news portal The Wire over the last week.
In Parliament, opposition parties including the Congress and TMC demanded answers, while Ashwini Vaishnaw, minister of information technology, presented the government's response.
The Wire reported a list of names which it said could have potentially been a target of Pegasus spyware developed and sold by Israeli company NSO Group. These included the Congress Party's Rahul Gandhi and many close to him, election strategist Prashant Kishor who has worked with several political parties, several journalists including Sushant Singh, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, editors of The Wire and their reporters Rohini Singh and Swati Chaturvedi; former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa, a former employee of the Supreme COurt who had alleged sexual harassment by then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, dozens of political activists; and the current IT Minister Vaishnav himself, among others.
'An Infringement of Fundamental Rights'
Brittas, a Rajya Sabha member, has argued that the revelations raise serious questions of possible infringement of people's rights and an attack on the independence of constitutional authorities such as the Election Commission and the Supreme Court.
Brittas said NSO, the firm owning the spyware Pegasus, has maintained that they sell the software only to sovereign governments. In this situation, he argued, this possible surveillance could have been ordered either by the Indian government or an external force.
If it was done by the Indian government, then in this case it was unauthorised; and, if it was a done by a foreign force, then that qualifies as an act of aggression, he said.
The petition seeks an investigation on the grounds that:
The revelations are causing apprehension among people of the country as snooping violates a citizen's freedom of speech under Article-19 (1) (a) as well as his/her personal liberty under Article-21.
Snooping, phone-tapping, wiretapping, line bugging, etc. are critical invasion of an individual’s privacy.
As the interceptions are said to be done in the gadgets of judges and a Supreme Court staffer, there is a strong interference with the administration of justice.
The aspect of interception of the phones of a former Election Commission member, if true, shows that the fundamentals of democracy and free-and-fair elections are also shaken.
Tapping of phones of journalists will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and expression.
Since even the phones of top-most CBI officers and central investigating agencies are said to be intercepted, an independent and transparent investigation through any of these central agencies may not invoke a trust in the eyes of general public.Petition by John Brittas
‘Government’s Response Is Evasive’
The Pegasus issue has dominated the proceedings of the first week of the monsoon session of Parliament. The Minister for Information and Technology made a statement that no unauthorised surveillance has taken place.
The minister did not make any specific comments on the people named in The Wire’s reports as possible targets of surveillance.
Brittas has called the government’s response as evasive as it neither denies or admits to the snooping.
If the government sticks on to the statement of the Hon’ble Minister for Electronics and IT in the Parliament on 28th November 2019 that there had not been “no unauthorized interception, the current interception can only be considered as an authorized interception’’.Petition by John Brittas
In such a situation, Brittas argued, there is a need to investigate the reasons for snooping on opposition leaders, CBI officials, staff of judges, journalists and scientists was ordered. Only a proper court-monitored investigation can alleviate these apprehensions, said Brittas.
Brittas' petition is the second public interest litigation to be filed on this issue. Earlier, lawyer ML Sharma had filed a PIL seeking a court-monitored probe.
The Supreme Court is yet to schedule a date of hearing.
Meanwhile, on July 26, the West Bengal government constituted an Inquiry Commission headed by former Supreme Court Justice Madan Lokur and former Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court Justice Jyotirmay Bhattacharya. Among those whose phones may have been surveilled is TMC's Abhishek Banerjee, a member of parliament and the state chief minister's nephew. "Through Pegasus, everyone including judiciary and civic society has been under surveillance, Chief minister Mamata Banerjee said as per news agency ANI's report. "We expected that during Parliament (session), centre will investigate under Supreme Court supervision, but they didn't."
West Bengal is the first state to commission such an inquiry.