New Delhi: A bench headed by Chief Justice of India NV Ramana is likely to take up the interim report submitted by the committee headed by former Supreme Court Justice RV Raveendran. (File photo)

The Supreme Court is likely to consider the interim inquiry report submitted by the three-member committee that was constituted by the court in the case pertaining to unauthorised surveillance using Pegasus software in January this year.

A bench headed by Chief Justice of India NV Ramana is likely to take up the interim report submitted by the committee headed by former Supreme Court Justice RV Raveendran.

The report is an interim one as some aspects of the case are yet to be analysed, sources said.

The committee may also seek more time to file the final report or file an interim report in the matter as it had, in a letter written on April 18, had directed police chiefs of all states to specify if they had procured the Israeli spyware.

The Pegasus Row

The Pegasus project investigations revealed that the Pegasus spyware was used on ministers, opposition leaders, political strategists, journalists, activists, minority leaders, SC judges, religious leaders, and heads of the Central Bureau of Investigation.

The project was a collaborative investigative journalism initiative undertaken by 17 media organisations. The allegations of snooping had prevented Parliament from functioning normally. Opposition and activists had attacked the government from all quarters, rejecting its defence that no illegality was committed by its agencies.

The Pegasus row reached the Supreme Court, which heard a bunch of petitions last year.

What Did The Court Say

Ruling on a batch of 12 petitions which sought an independent probe into the alleged illegal use of the Israeli NSO Group spyware, Pegasus, the bench had said “The Petitioners have placed on record certain material that prima facie merits consideration by this court. There has been no specific denial of any of the facts averred by the petitioners by the respondent, Union of India. There has only been an omnibus and vague denial in the ‘limited affidavit’ filed by the respondent, Union of India, which cannot be sufficient. In such circumstances, we have no option but to accept the prima facie case made out by the petitioners to examine the allegations made.”

What Did The Centre Say

During the hearing, the Centre had filed a brief affidavit unequivocally denying the allegations against it and said the matter involved national security questions due to which it did not wish to put the details in a public affidavit and make it a matter of public debate. It said it would divulge the details to a committee of experts who would examine the issue. It urged the court to allow it to set up a committee.

But the bench, in its order, said it is turning down the government’s request to allow it to set up the committee due to allegations that the Union or state governments are party to the rights’ deprivations of the citizens. It said allowing the request “would violate the settled judicial principle against bias, ie, that ‘justice must not only be done, but also be seen to be done’.”

The bench said, “The right to privacy is directly infringed when there is surveillance or spying done on an individual, either by the State or by any external agency and if done by the State, the same must be justified on constitutional grounds.”

Elaborating on the need for balancing privacy concerns with the security needs of the state, the bench said, “It is cognizant of the State’s interest to ensure that life and liberty is preserved and must balance the same. For instance, in today’s world, information gathered by intelligence agencies through surveillance is essential for the fight against violence and terror.”

“To access this information, a need may arise to interfere with the right to privacy of an individual, provided it is carried out only when it is absolutely necessary for protecting national security/interest and is proportional. The considerations for usage of such alleged technology, ought to be evidence based. In a democratic country governed by the rule of law, indiscriminate spying on individuals cannot be allowed except with sufficient statutory safeguards, by following the procedure established by law under the Constitution,” the bench said.

“An important and necessary corollary of such a right is to ensure the protection of sources of information. Protection of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for the freedom of the press. Without such protection, sources may be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public on matters of public interest,” it said.

Supreme Court Inquiry Panel

In October 2021, the Supreme Court formed an expert committee headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice RV Raveendran to probe the matter.

The Supreme Court also asked the committee to file a report within 8 weeks.

The court added that information gathered by agencies is vital to the fight against terrorism and it can interfere in right to privacy only when absolutely necessary for the protection of national interests.