SC: Freedom of the press is an important pillar in democracy

Freedom and justice for the press is a fundamental pillar of democracy. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court noted that the Supreme Court’s task in the Pegasus case assumes great significance due to the critical importance of protecting journalistic sources and any chilling effects that snooping may have.

The apex Court appointed a three-member expert committee to investigate the alleged Israeli spyware Pegasus used to monitor certain people in India. It highlighted the freedom for press and stated that it was compelled to examine the matter to find truth and determine the truth behind the allegations.

Chief Justice N V Ramana headed the bench. He stated it was undisputed that surveillance and knowing that one is at risk of being spied-on can have an impact on how an individual chooses to exercise their rights.

Such a scenario might result in self-censorship. This is particularly concerning as it pertains to freedom of expression, which is an important pillar in democracy. A chilling effect on speech is an assault upon the vital role of the public-watchdog press. This could reduce the press’s ability to provide accurate and reliable information. The bench also included Justices Surya Kant and Hima Sharma.

A 46-page order was passed by the top court on a group of pleas seeking an independent probe into the alleged Pegasus surveillance matter. The court stated that protection of journalistic resources is one condition for the freedom press and without it sources might be discouraged from aiding the media in forming the public about matters in the public interest.

This court is assuming great importance due to the importance and potential chilling effects of spying techniques.

Referring specifically to the January 2013 judgment of the apex Court on the pleas against the curbs imposed in Jammu & Kashmir by the Centre for abrogating provisions of Article 370 of Constitution, the bench stated that in that verdict, the court had highlighted how important freedom of press is in a modern democracy.

It stated that an important and essential corollary of such rights is to protect information sources.

The court stated that it was initially not satisfied with the pleas made in the matter, because they relied entirely on newspaper reports.

The court stated that the apex courts have tried to discourage writ-petitions, especially those involving public interest litigations. This is because they are entirely based on newspaper reports, without any additional steps being taken by the petitioner.

Although we recognize that the petitions make allegations about matters which ordinary citizens will not be able to access except through the investigating reporting done in news agencies, considering the quality of some of these petitions, we have to say that individuals should not submit half-baked petitions based only on a handful of newspaper reports.

The court ruled that such an action, while not helping the cause advocated by the person filing the plea, can often be detrimental to the cause.

This is because the court will not be able to offer any assistance, and it will have to decide preliminary facts. According to the bench, this is what causes happy filing of petitions in courts. This is especially true in this court that is to be the final adjudicatory authority in the country.

The court said that this does not mean that news agencies can be trusted by the courts. It was meant to highlight the importance of each pillar in democracy’s role in the polity.

The court stated that news agencies report facts, bring to light issues that may otherwise not be known publicly. These can then be the basis for further action by an active and involved civil society as well any future filings made in courts.

However, newspaper reports are not to be taken in isolation as readymade pleadings that can be filed in court.

Later, the court heard that other pleas were filed, including those by individuals who were victims of the alleged Pegasus spyware attack.

It claimed that additional documents and petitions filed by others have added to the record certain materials that can’t be ignored.

We were also moved by the large number of cross-referenced, cross-verified news reports from various reputable news organisations around the world, as well as the reactions of foreign governments, to believe that this case may fall within the scope of the court’s jurisdiction, it stated.

It was also noted that the argument had been interrupted by Solicitor General Tushar Mhta, who suggested that many of these reports may be motivated and self-serving.

However, an omnibus oral allegation of interference is not sufficient, it stated.

International media consortium reported that 300 Indian mobile phone numbers were listed as potential targets in alleged surveillance by NSO’s spyware Pegasus.