The Pegasus Line continued to shake Parliament with Union Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw making a statement Thursday in the Rajya Sabha denouncing reports that the spyware could have been used to spy on opposition leaders, activists and others, and the opposition forcing repeated adjournments of the House.
The afternoon session of the Upper House witnessed busy times as opposition MPs led by Trinamool MP Santanu Sen rushed to the chamber well and tore up the minister’s statement .
When the House met at 2 p.m., after two previous adjournments, Vice President Harivansh asked the Minister of Informatics to present his statement to the Rajya Sabha. As Vaishnaw rose to speak, the House erupted into slogans of “Jasoosi band karo, band karo (stop spying)”.
As the slogan shouting intensified, TMC’s Sen, along with several other members of his party, entered the chamber well and tore up the minister’s statement, even as the vice president pleaded for calm.
Amid the din, Vaishnaw read the statement – almost identical to the one he made on July 19, a day after digital news platform The Wire, as part of a global collaborative investigation, reported that 300 Indian numbers were on a list of potential candidates. Pegasus spyware targets.
“A very sensational story was posted by a web portal on July 18, 2021. There have been many exaggerated claims made around this story. The press report came out a day before Parliament’s monsoon session. It cannot be a coincidence, ”he said.
Opp could step up the pressure
With the Pegasus Row threatening to derail the first half of Parliament’s monsoon session, reports of more names on the so-called spy list could galvanize the opposition to step up their campaign. inquiry request.
“In the past, similar claims have been made regarding the use of Pegasus on WhatsApp. These reports had no factual basis and were categorically denied by all parties, including before the Supreme Court. The July 18, 2021 news articles are also an attempt to slander Indian democracy with its well-established institutions. We cannot blame those who have not read the story in detail, and I ask all honorable members to consider the matter on the facts and the logic, ” the minister added.
In October 2019, The Indian Express reported that WhatsApp had confirmed the use of Pegasus to target journalists and human rights activists in India. WhatsApp made the disclosure in a lawsuit it filed in court in the United States.
The CEO of Whatsapp, Will Cathcart, then called on governments to restrict this “dangerous use of spyware”. WhatsApp sued NSO, alleging that the latter had implanted its Pegasus spyware in the devices of 1,400 WhatsApp users around the world.
As Vaishnaw read the statement, members of the opposition continued to slogans against the government, forcing the Deputy Speaker to adjourn the House for the day.
In his statement on Thursday, which was filed and considered read amid the heckling, Vaishnaw said, “Let’s take a look at what NSO, the company that owns the technology, said. He said: “NSO Group believes that the claims provided to you are based on a misleading interpretation of data disclosed from background information, such as HLR search services, which does not affect the listing. targets of customers of Pegasus or any other NSO product.These services are open to anyone, anywhere, anytime, and are commonly used by government agencies as well as private businesses around the world. is also indisputable that the data has nothing to do with surveillance or the NSO, so there can be no factual basis to suggest that a use of the data in some way equates to surveillance.… It is evident that NSO also clearly denied the claims of the report.
In a statement to Indian express, NSO had denied any connection between the 50,000 numbers and the group or Pegasus. However, NSO added that it “will continue to investigate all credible allegations of abuse and take appropriate action based on the results of those investigations.”
Just a fortnight before the World Expo, the NSO Group, in an internal policy document, also acknowledged that “Pegasus’ clients are states and state agencies” which may be “tempted to limit fundamental freedoms. “.
Although Vasihnaw in his statement pointed out the elaborate legislative processes in India that prevent illegal surveillance, he did not say, like his predecessor Ravi Shankar Prasad, whether the government used Pegasus.
Reacting to today’s debates, government sources said legal action would be taken against Trinamool MPs who tore up the minister’s statement. “There will be action on the government side and the privilege motion is one of the options. The government will finalize it by tomorrow, ”a source said.
Addressing a press conference, BJP leader and Union Minister Meenakshi Lekhi said: “Congress and TMC have fallen to a new low.”
Shantanu Sen, the TMC MP at the center of the controversy, said he was summoned by Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri in a “bad way”. “I always went to see him… and I was almost gheraoed,” he said.
Rajya Sabha party leader Derek O Brien said the government owed the country a direct response to Pegasus. “The government must give us a simple and straightforward answer. Did you use Pegasus… yes or no? We want a structured discussion. It is beyond the Minister of Informatics. The Prime Minister of the country and the Minister of the Interior of the country must answer ”, he declared.
On the possibility of the Treasury Banks proposing a motion of privilege, the deputy and spokesperson for Rajya Sabha, Abhishek Singhvi Singhvi, called the heckling in the Upper House a “closed matter” and that the government was trying to “deflect and to move away from the real problems ”.
“I was also in the House at the time and everything calmed down and ended pretty quickly. However, if for ulterior motives, to hijack, digress, confuse, distract from major issues like espionage, surveillance, and fundamental breaches of press freedom, the government wants to create this thing by doing reliving a closed issue, then I think everyone will see through that because they don’t want the focus to stay on the real issues, ”he told The Indian Express.
With Liz Mathew, Manoj CG, Dipankar Ghose in New Delhi