The Pegasus scandal, which revolved around the use of spyware to snoop on a wide range of public figures, took a curious turn on Thursday morning.
Since the start of the week, multiple media outlets had reported on the possible use of the Pegasus spyware to target journalists, dissidents and politicians, based on research conducted by Amnesty International and French NGO Forbidden Stories.
On Thursday morning, media reports claimed Amnesty International had released a statement, apparently, distancing itself from the Pegasus scandal. According to the reports, the statement said, "Amnesty, and the investigative journalists and media outlets they work with have made clear from the outset in very clear language that this is a list of numbers marked as numbers of interest to NSO customers, meaning they are the kind of people NSO clients might like to spy on. The list contains the kind of people NSO's clients would ordinarily be interested in spying on..." NSO Group is the Israeli company that developed Pegasus.
Multiple media publications reported the statement. Some of the reports appeared to be based on a story in Calcalist, an Israeli business publication.
The purported denial by Amnesty International sparked responses from BJP leaders who attacked critics of the Narendra Modi government. The opposition had alleged the Modi government had used Pegasus to snoop on multiple people in India including journalists, activists and politicians.
Amit Malviya, the head of the BJP's IT operations, tweeted, "The global fishing expedition launched by a syndicated of media organisations put out a malicious report with no evidence. They do not know the source of the list of phone numbers, nor do they know if numbers were spied on. This is nothing but an attempt to undermine democracies."
BJP MP Tejasvi Surya tweeted, "When a low credibility organization like Amnesty itself calls out the lies of The Wire, one can imagine the levels of depravity they have reached. Those low lives can go back to window shopping negative stories on India. India will march on!" The Wire was the only Indian media outlet that had been in the list of publications provided access to the findings of Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International on Pegasus.
However, by midday on Thursday, Amnesty International issued a statement on its website declaring it stood by its research on the Pegasus scandal.
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The statement was in response to "false allegations on social media and inaccurate media stories". The statement said, "Amnesty International categorically stands by the findings of the Pegasus Project, and that the data is irrefutably linked to potential targets of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. The false rumours being pushed on social media are intended to distract from the widespread unlawful targeting of journalists, activists and others that the Pegasus Project has revealed."
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor shared a screen-shot of the title of the Amnesty statement and wrote "For all the journalists who told me in Parliament that @amnesty had 'done a u-turn' — never base your stories on @OpIndia_com propaganda!"