Bombay HC seeks state DGIPR’s response on PIL alleging Pegasus link to 2019 Israel study tour

Seeking judicial inquiry, the PIL states that the "actual object of sending a team to Israel was to acquire spying software like Pegasus".

The Bombay High Court on Thursday issued notices in a PIL by RTI activists that has alleged that in November 2019, “chosen” senior officials of the state directorate general of information and public relations (DGIPR) were sent to Israel to study “advance web media” without requisite approvals and by breaching mandatory conditions. The tour took place just after the Assembly election, the PIL has alleged.

Seeking judicial inquiry, the PIL states that the “actual object of sending a team to Israel was to acquire spying software like Pegasus”.

A division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish S Kulkarni was hearing a PIL by activists Laxman Narsayya Bura and Digambar Gentyal, filed through advocate Tejesh Dande. It seeks action against five officials of DGIPR, the delegates who went to the Israel study tour from November 15 to 25 in 2019 when the formation of the state government after the Assembly election was in full swing. The officials went on the study tour as per an invitation letter, dated September 5, 2019, from Consulate General of Israel in Mumbai.

The petitioners have sought action against the respondents, claiming the proposal for the study tour was sanctioned in contravention of mandatory procedures laid down in the government resolution (GR) of December 2014 thereby “misusing public funds and imposing unnecessary burden on the public exchequer”.

The plea said the GR laid down a procedure to be followed by the general administrative department for seeking approval and sanction from various authorities and the central government for the purpose of foreign tours.

The PIL also said according to the GR, activities, which can be studied through alternative work mode or videoconferencing, may be avoided and may not be sanctioned as it unnecessarily burdens the treasury.

According to the plea, the documents provided by the state government in an RTI reply shows that the topics suggested by the officials included “new trends in government PR, new ways of utilising web media, usage of digital marketing tools, utilising media in the times of emergencies and eventualities, preparation of holistic and comprehensive media plan for dissemination of government messages”, among others.

The expenditure for the visit was nearly Rs 14 lakh and, being a foreign tour, it was mandatory to obtain approval from the central government as well the then chief minister of Maharashtra, and those were not obtained, the plea said.

The PIL stated, “The study tour does not make out any prominent feature or reveal any substantial and specific importance so as to go to Israel, and aspects mentioned in the proposal are ‘general in nature’… It appears that under the garb of media management training and other allied activities, the government was sending its officials to bring other modalities in the country for misusing them during election process, including electronic voting machine hacking software etc.”

The petitioners prayed before the court to call records pertaining to the visit and inform the HC what special knowledge officials have acquired and how it will benefit the country. The PIL further sought judicial inquiry into the entire proposal of the Israel tour and its sanction process.

The bench issued notices to the state government, DGIPR and five concerned officials and asked them to file affidavits in reply, if any, within four weeks.

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