The Supreme Court on Monday asked Attorney-General G.E. Vahanvati to produce in a sealed cover a copy of the complaint received against corporate lobbyist Niira Radia, which formed the basis for the Income-Tax Department to tap her telephonic conversations.
A Bench comprising Justices G.S. Singhvi and A.K. Ganguly said this to the A-G after perusing the Centre's counter-affidavit in the petition filed by industrialist Ratan Tata, alleging that the publication of tapes of his private conversations with Ms. Radia had infringed his right to privacy.
Justice Singhvi referred to the affidavit, which said: “A complaint was received by the Finance Minister on November 16, 2009, inter alia alleging that Ms. Radia had, within a short span of nine years, built up a business empire worth Rs.900 crore; that she was an agent of foreign intelligence agencies; and that she was indulging in anti-national activities. On this complaint it was directed that the matter should be examined.”
Justice Singhvi told the A-G: “We want to see the complaint.”
The A-G said: “We will give all details, including the 14 telephone numbers and the authorisation issued for tapping the conversations. We will give it in a sealed cover.”
Justice Singhvi faulted a section of the media for distorting the court proceedings by using catchy but inaccurate headlines such as “SC raps Home Secretary.”
He said: “Till we decide, nobody's name should be dragged in the media.” The court would not remain a mute spectator if the distortion continued.
Justice Ganguly observed: “If this continues, judges will stop asking questions to counsel.”
Senior counsel Anil Divan and senior counsel Rajeev Dhavan, appearing for the Outlook and Open magazines respectively, opposed Mr. Tata's petition and argued that it was not maintainable. They submitted that Mr. Tata's petition was not in public interest and it was a private interest petition.
Earlier, senior counsel Harish Salve, appearing for Mr. Tata, said he was not questioning the right of statutory authorities to record private conversations or the use of transcripts by probe agencies for investigative purposes.
“My concern is that the audio content of personal conversation, which has no bearing on the investigation, should not be put in the public domain,” Mr. Salve said.
Explaining the propositions of law, Mr. Salve said the court must lay down whether the media had the right to publish such interception of conversations per se, and whether the right to privacy, an integral part of personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution, “protects conversations obtained by the government or other lawful authority, by interception of telephone, from exposure in the public domain.”
Mr. Salve wondered whether the power to intercept telephonic conversations of private persons was coupled with a constitutional duty to ensure the secrecy of such communications, except to the extent brought into the public domain in legal proceedings initiated by law enforcement agencies.
He argued that a balance should be struck between the right to privacy under Article 21 and the media's right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 (1)(a) insofar as it related to conversations between two non-official persons.