On Friday (July 30), the Supreme Court agreed to hear a petition filed by ‘journalists’ N. Ram and Sashi Kumar over the alleged snooping scandal by the Modi government against ‘142 prominent individuals’ using Israeli spyware Pegasus.
While representing the petitioners in the apex court, advocate and Congress leader Kapil Sibal sought an urgent hearing and claimed that the matter concerned ‘national security, fundamental rights, and civil liberties’ of citizens. The petition alleged, “Such mass surveillance using a military-grade spyware abridges several fundamental rights and appears to represent an attempt to infiltrate, attack and destabilise independent institutions that act as critical pillars of our democratic set-up.”
It further added, “Respondents (Ministries of Home, Information Technology and Communications) have not categorically ruled out obtaining Pegasus licences to conduct surveillance in their response, and have taken no steps to ensure a credible and independent investigation into these extremely serious allegations.” Accusing the government of spying, the petitioners alleged that it was an attempt to muzzle free speech and dissent. Furthermore, the petition claimed that the government bypassed Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act and targeted the civilians.
The matter was heard by Chief Justice of India (CJI) NV Ramana. The petition by N. Ram and Sashi Kumar argued that the extent of ‘survelliance’ cannot be relied upon solely on governmental assessment. Labelling the use of the Pegasus spyware as ‘criminal offence’, it claimed that the malware can track and record calls, activate camera and microphone, read emails, texts, Whatsapp messages and even collect passwords. Citing Amnesty International, the petitioners claimed that the ‘surveillance targets’ had ‘Pegasus-induced security breaches’ on their phones.
Why the ‘Pegasus snooping scandal’ has no merit?
On July 18, the left-wing portal ‘The Wire’ claimed that the names of 40 Indian journalists were present in a list that contained names of people who were spied upon using Israeli spyware Pegasus. The 40 Indians were apparently among the thousands of people mentioned in the so-called leaked list, which were earlier reported by The Guardian. Pegasus is developed by Israeli cyber arms firm NSO Group, and reportedly it is only sold to governments. This software can infect iOS and Android devices remotely, and collect all kinds of data.
The Wire insinuated that as only governments could use the software, it meant that the Modi govt was spying on Indian journalists including Siddharth Varadarajan, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, M.K. Venu, Shishir Gupta, Rohini Singh etc. The report included quotes from the allegedly targeted journalists who directly blamed the Modi government for ‘spying’ on them. However, The Wire, or other international publications, did not provide any proof of the so-called spying. None of the media houses reporting the ‘leak’ shed light on the source of the data leak, the involvement of ‘specific’ governments or the objective behind such surveillance.
Following the controversy, the Indian government issued a statement responding to a questionnaire about the alleged leak. The statement stated, “The story being crafted is one that is not only bereft of facts but also founded in pre-conceived conclusions. It seems you are trying to play the role of an investigator, prosecutor as well as jury.” The government clarified both in RTI replies and in the Parliament that there had been no unauthorised interception by security agencies.
“The allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever. In India there is a well-established procedure through which lawful interception of electronic communication is carried out in order for the purpose of national security, particularly on the occurrence of any public emergency or in the interest of public safety, by agencies at the centre and states ,” the statement said. The NSO group had also refuted the claims by the Guardian report about the ‘leak’.
Days later, Amnesty International stated in a statement that they had never claimed that the so-called list was that of people who were spied on, and asserted that their ‘list’ was merely a mention of people who may be “potential targets” of the clients of NSO.
How N Ram manufactured the Rafale scam through digitally cropped documents?
One of the petitioners in the ‘Pegasus snopping scandal’ is N. Ram, the Chairman of the Kasturi & Sons Limited and publisher of The Hindu. Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the journalist desperately tried to create an anti-Modi wave by manufacturing a ‘defence scam’ in the Rafale deal.
On February 8, 2019, The Hindu had published a note from a defence ministry official who had objected to the Prime Minister’s office inquiring about the progress of the deal. This was despite the fact that the officer was not involved in the negotiations of the deal. The Hindu wanted to project that there was opposition to the Rafale deal in the defence ministry and only the Prime Minister was pushing for it. In doing so, the newspaper had cropped a vital part in the same document, a note by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. The then defence minister had written that the officer was overreacting, and offices of Indian PM and French President were just monitoring the progress of the deal.
Immediately after the Hindu report, ANI had published the full document, which had proved that N Ram had used a cropped version of the document in his article. About 10 days after the incident, The Hindu came up with a clarification, saying that it did not doctor the document. In its column Readers Editor, it has claimed that the document published by it was an earlier version, which didn’t include the Defence Minister’s note. As proof of the same, The Hindu had noted that the document published by ANI had serial numbers on each note, while there were no serial numbers on the document published by Hindu.
To hide the evidence of Parrikar’s note, the Hindu cropped the document in two places, and even digitally erased part of a stamp that should have been visible even after cropping the same. And its claim that it did not doctor the document turned out to be false, because a date stamp before the defence secretary’s note was clearly removed from the document. As such, the petition in the Supreme Court over the alleged snooping scandal looks like another desperate attempt at anti-Modi propaganda.