The Supreme Court on Thursday decided to examine industrialist Ratan Tata's petition, which alleged that publication of the tapes of his private conversations with corporate lobbyist Niira Radia had infringed his right to privacy, and issued notice to the Union government, the CBI and the Outlook and Open magazines, seeking their response in 10 days.
A Bench of Justices G.S. Singhvi and A.K. Ganguly, after hearing senior counsel Harish Salve for the petitioner and Attorney-General G.E. Vahanvati, posted the matter to December 13, when it would consider Mr. Tata's interim plea to stop further publication of such tapes.
Besides the Home Secretary and the Finance Secretary, notice was issued to the Directorate-General of Income Tax, which had prepared the tapes.
Mr. Salve submitted that public disclosure of the private conversations would violate Mr. Tata's right to privacy. Quoting earlier judgments of the court, he said: “This petition raises an important question relating to the interpretation of Article 21 of the Constitution concerning right to life, which also includes the right to privacy.”
He said Mr. Tata was not questioning the right of statutory authorities to record private conversations or the use of transcripts by the probe agencies for investigative purposes. “My concern is that the audio content of personal conversation should not be put in the public domain,” Mr. Salve said. He said all conversations that had no relevance to the purpose for which they were recorded must be put out of the media's reach.
When Justice Singhvi asked, “what are those private conversations,” he said: “things like ‘when are you going to dinner'… are all irrelevant to be put in the public domain.” When the Judge asked what was the relief sought in the petition, counsel wanted a direction to the government to ensure that there was no further publication of these recordings. “We do not want any injunction against the media.” Justice Singhvi, however, pointed out that there could not be any blanket order. He said the petitioner had not impleaded either Outlook or Open as a party. “This should not be reduced to be an academic exercise. You implead them; we will hear them also before passing any order.”
In his petition, Mr. Tata argued that unauthorised publication of his private conversations with Ms. Radia had infringed his right to privacy. He was aggrieved by the failure of the authorities to take adequate steps to protect the privacy of those whose conversations were recorded and to act in accordance with the Rules under the Indian Telegraph Act in dealing with these transcripts. Even if the transcripts were illegally obtained by someone, no steps were taken to retrieve them and prevent their dissemination in public.
Mr. Tata said that Article 21 would extend to the protection of his reputation and that of those similarly situated.
He sought directions to the authorities to take all steps, as might be necessary, to retrieve as far as possible all recordings and to the CBI to conduct a thorough inquiry into the matter. ; and a direction to ensure that there was no further publication of these recordings — either as audio files through the Internet or as transcripts in any media, print or electronic.