Pegasus Reports Holds Sway Over Parliament Proceedings, Opposition Parties Call for Probe

Soon after the House assembled at 3 pm, the opposition members raised slogans demanding government accountability.

New Delhi: News on the use of Pegasus software to potentially or successfully snoop on journalists, politicians and others – broken worldwide by 16 media partners including The Wire – dominated Lok Sabha proceedings on Tuesday, July 20, leading to disruptions and repeated adjournments of the House.

After exposing the use of the spyware to target the mobile phones of journalists and human rights defenders in India on day one, The Wire, had revealed that Pegasus was found in the smartphone key opposition strategist Prashant Kishor. On the list of potentially surveilled political players were Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Trinamool Congress leader Abhishek Banerjee and leaders in the toppled Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) government in Karnataka, along with their aides..

Soon after the House assembled at 3 pm, the opposition members raised slogans demanding government accountability. The chair adjourned the House for the day. The Lok Sabha will now meet on Thursday after the Eid holiday.

On Monday, the Opposition had disrupted the proceedings over issues including price rise and the three farm laws against which farmers have been protesting at Delhi’s borders for eight months now.

Opposition members, including from the Congress and Trinamool Congress, started raising slogans and showing placards against the Modi government on the snooping issue as soon as the House met for the day at 11 am.

The proceedings lasted five minutes. The same scene was witnessed when the House reassembled at 2 pm.

One of the placards read that while people are suffering from unemployment, the government is busy with spying. The slogan was in Hindi.

Some Congress members held placards protesting Rahul Gandhi’s name appearing in the list of potential targets of snooping.

TMC members also raised their voice against party MP Abhishek Banerjee’s phone number having been selected for surveillance. Abhishek Banerjee is the nephew of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

Also read: FAQ: On the Pegasus Project’s Digital Forensics

The Wire broke both these stories yesterday, July 19.

Speaker Om Birla said it is not right to disrupt the House and the government is ready to give answers on any matter.

“Please go back to your seats. I will facilitate a debate on every issue. (But) sloganeering is not right. The government is ready to debate on whatever issues you want to debate on,” he said.

Various parties have demanded a thorough investigation or a judicial inquiry into the Pegasus reports and the resignation of Union home minister Amit Shah in the aftermath of the reports.

In the Rajya Sabha too, members of opposition parties, who had given as many as 15 notices under rule 267, raised slogans and rushed into the Well of the House, prompting chairman M. Venkaiah Naidu to first adjourn the proceedings. Naidu then disallowed all the 15 notices as he did for the 17 served on Monday, as The Wire has reported earlier in the day.

Normalcy reportedly returned to the Upper House only after Naidu met floor leaders of various parties, including Leader of the House Piyush Goyal, opposition leaders Anand Sharma, Jairam Ramesh, Derek O’Brien, Tiruchi Siva, and some others, and expressed concern over the repeated disruptions in the House.

The House later resumed and discussion on the COVID-19 crisis took place.

TMC makes pledge

The Trinamool Congress Tuesday said it will continue to disrupt Parliament proceedings till the government comes clean on the charges of snooping and surveillance using the Pegasus spyware and discusses it in both Houses.

The party said it will, however, not halt any discussion on the coronavirus situation or aspects related to it.

“This (Pegasus spyware) is a serious issue and the TMC will not compromise on it. We will not let either House run till this government comes clean on the charges of snooping and surveillance. The government has spent millions to hack into phones at a time when the country is dealing with a pandemic,” TMC Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien said.

TMC Lok Sabha MP Mahua Moitra said, “We are saying on record that the IT minister lied on the floor of the House. We just want the PM, HM and the IT minister to answer if India is a client of NSO (Israeli firm that makes the Pegasus spyware) or not? We have a list of questions for the government and we will not allow Parliament to run unless these questions are answered.”

IT and Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw had Monday dismissed media reports on the use of Pegasus software to snoop on Indians, saying the allegations levelled just ahead of the Monsoon session of Parliament are aimed at maligning Indian democracy.

Also read: Old RTI Response Enough To Deny Govt-Pegasus Link, Media Didn’t Do Due Diligence: MeitY

In a suo motu statement in Lok Sabha, Vaishnaw said that with several checks and balances being in place, “any sort of illegal surveillance” by unauthorised persons is not possible in India.

However, as The Wire has reported, Ashwini Vaishnaw is one of the two BJP leaders whose phone numbers were in the list.

(With PTI inputs)

The Pegasus Project is a collaborative investigation that involves more than 80 journalists from 17 news organisations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Read all our coverage here.