Need to frame guidelines to protect journalists’ digital privacy: SC

There has to be a balancing of interests and proper guidelines need to be placed to protect the interests of media professionals, says Justice Sanjay Kaul

November 07, 2023 10:46 pm | Updated 10:47 pm IST - NEW DELHI

In a significant step to protect the freedom of press, a Bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Sudhanshu Dhulia reminded the government that “privacy has been made a fundamental right”.

In a significant step to protect the freedom of press, a Bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Sudhanshu Dhulia reminded the government that “privacy has been made a fundamental right”. | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The Supreme Court on Tuesday highlighted the need to frame guidelines to protect privacy of journalists when their personal digital devices are seized by the Central agencies.

In a significant step to protect the freedom of press, a Bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Sudhanshu Dhulia reminded the government that “privacy has been made a fundamental right”.

The petitioner, Foundation for Media Professionals, said journalists were endlessly harassed, and that their digital devices even contain private photos. In some cases, taking away their digital devices robbed them of their ability to pay their children’s school fees.

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“We have made privacy a fundamental right… What is the point of that? This has been troubling us,” Justice Kaul asked the Centre, represented by Additional Solicitor-General S.V. Raju.

Mr. Raju said the petitioners wanted a virtual shutting out of investigative agencies. Disagreeing, Justice Kaul said, “There has to be a balancing of interests and proper guidelines need to be placed to protect the interests of media professionals.”

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The court directed Mr. Raju to “work” on framing the guidelines and come back to the court on the next day of hearing, December 6. Mr. Raju said the legal issues involved in the case were “complicated”.

Senior advocate Siddharth Agarwal, for the petitioner side, said there were “hundreds of journalists whose digital devices are taken away en masse”.

He said there were no guidelines with reference to when and what may be seized, what can be accessed, and what kind of protection is ensured for personal data, health data, financial data.

“The entire digital footprint is on that one device. Once an investigating agency is involved, it is not like the person can have a back-up,” Mr. Agarwal argued.

The court said agencies cannot be given an all-encompassing power to seize the personal digital devices of citizens. It said guidelines should be framed by the government, if not, by the court itself.

“This is very dangerous. It cannot be that a state is run only through its agencies,” Justice Kaul observed.

Mr. Agrwal said the use of state power to squash individual rights was not unique to one political dispensation, but to all. “One dispensation teaches the other,” Justice Kaul responded. Mr. Raju said no one was above the law.

“We only want the law to be laid down,” Mr. Agarwal countered.

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