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Search/Seizure of Digital Devices of Journalists a Serious Issue, Need Guidelines: SC

Bench calls for protecting media professionals, gives Centre a month to suggest guidelines governing such seizures and searches.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court of India on Tuesday said that the seizure or search of digital devices, including phones of individuals, especially of media professionals, was a serious matter and called for the need for guidelines on the matter.

The bench of the apex court, consisting of Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Sudhanshu Dhulia, which was hearing a public interest litigation filed by the Foundation of Media Professionals, gave the Centre a month’s time to come out with guidelines governing such seizures, according to a report in Bar & BenchThe hearing will continue on Wednesday, December 6.

"See these are media professionals, they will have on their phones sources, contacts. So, there must be some guidelines. This is serious,Justice Kaul orally observed, as quoted by the report.

Justice Dhulia pointed out that "they (investigating agencies) are supposed to give you the hash value (of the seized device)."

Additional Solicitor General, S V Raju, who appeared on behalf of the Central government pointed out that there were “several complicated, legal issues that are required to be examined,”

Appearing on behalf of the petitioners, senior advocate Siddharth Agarwal, however, pointed out that hundreds of journalists’ digital devices, including personal ones, had been taken away. “The issues raised in this petition are very significant because there are no guidelines as to when and what may be seized, what can be accessed, what kind of protection is ensured for personal data, health data financial data…”

Agarwal said that the media was a “common enemy to everybody because truth is something that comes through us,” after which the ASG said that he agreed that the “media has rights…but they are not above the law.” Agarwal replied “We only want the law to be laid down”.

Justice Kaul said that “You need to lay down guidelines”, and pronounced that “We have however put to the learned ASG that there has to be a balancing of interests and proper guidelines need to be in place to protect the interest of media professionals. We would like the learned ASG to work on this and come back on this issue. This is more so in view of the aspect that privacy is held to be a fundamental right.” (as quoted by Live Law).

The hearing comes in the backdrop of widespread raids on October 3, at the homes of over 80 Newsclick employees, including journalists, consultants, contributors and former employees under the anti-terror law UAPA.

Earlier, too, raids have been carried out on other media organisations and devices seized.

Expressing serious concern over the issue, 18 media organisations had written to the Chief Justice of India and the President of India, drawing their attention to the seizure/searches of digital devices.

“We write this letter conscious of the fact that it is addressed not just to the Chief Justice of India but to an incumbent who has said, within the court and outside, that the “press has a duty to speak truth to power and present citizens with hard facts enabling them to make choices that propel democracy in the right direction” and that India’s freedoms will be safe as long as journalists can play this role “without being chilled by a threat of reprisal”.

The fact is that today, a large section of journalists in India finds itself working under the threat of reprisal. And it is imperative that the Judiciary confronts Power with a fundamental Truth—that there is a Constitution to which we are all answerable,” said the letter.

Read Also: 18 Media Organisations Write to CJI; Call for Steps to end Repressive Use of Probe Agencies Against Scribes

The PIL by FMP has raised concerns over the “unsettling trend” of “intrusive searches and seizures” of personal digital devices by law enforcement agencies, leading to a “chilling effect” on the exercise of constitutional freedoms, particularly of journalists, and has underscored the “inadequacy of existing laws” to address the complex challenges posed by digital spaces.

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