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Snooping on journalists an assault on vital watchdog role of the press: Supreme Court

‘The knowledge that one is under the threat of being spied on can affect the way an individual decides to exercise his or her rights’

October 27, 2021 04:36 pm | Updated 09:01 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

Protests erupted across India after it emerged that a spyware was used to snoop on politicians, journalists  and activists. Photo shows Youth Congress workers protesting in New Delhi on July 20, 2021.

Protests erupted across India after it emerged that a spyware was used to snoop on politicians, journalists and activists. Photo shows Youth Congress workers protesting in New Delhi on July 20, 2021.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday said snooping on journalists or creating a fear that the media is being spied on creates a “chilling effect” on journalistic freedom and is an assault on the vital public watchdog role of the press.

“It is undeniable that surveillance and the knowledge that one is under the threat of being spied on can affect the way an individual decides to exercise his or her rights. Such a scenario might result in self-censorship. This is of particular concern when it relates to the freedom of the press, which is an important pillar of democracy,” a Bench led by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana observed in their order appointing an expert committee to examine allegations of the government using Pegasus software to spy on citizens.

The court said a democratic society values the importance of protecting a source. That is part of press freedom.

A chilling effect caused by apprehensions of being spied upon would undermine the ability of the press to provide accurate and reliable information, the court pointed out.

Several journalists are parties, either as public interest petitioners or victims of the alleged Pegasus snooping , in the court.

“Having regard to the importance of the protection of journalistic sources for Press freedom in a democratic society and the potential chilling effect that snooping techniques may have, this court’s task in the present matter, where certain grave allegations of infringement of the rights of the citizens of the country have been raised, assumes great significance,” the Supreme Court observed, refusing the government’s offer to form a committee to examine the allegations.

The Bench said the apex court is “compelled to take up the cause to determine the truth and get to the bottom of the allegations”.

One of the petitioners , the Editors Guild of India, had sought an independent probe into the government’s alleged role in the Pegasus controversy.

The top editors’ body had said that “indiscriminate use” of top-end surveillance technology against journalists destroys free speech and “poisons the heart of democracy”.

The Guild had pointed out that freedom of press is a hard-won right essential to democracy.

“Freedom of the Press relies on non-interference by the government and its agencies in the reporting of journalists, including their ability to securely and confidentially speak with sources, investigate abuse of power and corruption, expose governmental incompetence, and speak with those in the Opposition,” its petition had noted.

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