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ECtHR Grand Chamber hears mass surveillance case

On 10 July the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR held a hearing in the case Big Brother Watch and Others v. the United Kingdom, initiated by three joined applications concerning mass surveillance carried out by state authorities. The applications were the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s reports on mass surveillance by the US authorities, conducted in agreement with a number of foreign actors, including the UK government. The first judgment in the case was pronounced in September 2018, but the applicants successfully requested the case’s referral to the Court’s Grand Chamber, sitting in an extended panel.

The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights presented amicus curiae briefs concerning two of the three joined applications which it invoked standards of the right to privacy and freedom of speech in the context of threats to the protection of journalistic sources of information. In both briefs, the HFHR pointed out that Polish law did not contain sufficient safeguards protecting individuals’ rights in the context of surveillance.

The applicants argued that they might have been put under surveillance by the General Communications Headquarters and that UK secret services might have received from their foreign counterparts information on the applicants’ electronic activities, which violated their right to privacy. In addition, those of the applicants who are professionally active in the field of investigative journalism have noted that such extensive surveillance, potentially involving members of the media, jeopardizes the protection of the reporter’s privilege and thereby violates the freedom of expression.

Timeline:

– 4 September 2013: Big Brother Watch and Others submit the applications to the ECtHR;
– 9 January 2014: the case Big Brother Watch and Others v. the United Kingdom is communicated to the UK Government;
– 11 September 2014: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism submits the application to the ECtHR;
– 5 January 2015: the case of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism is communicated;
– 9 February 2016: the HFHR submits its amicus curiae brief in Big Brother Watch and Others v. the United Kingdom;
– 9 February 2016: the HFHR submits its amicus curiae brief in Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Others v. the United Kingdom;
– 13 September 2018: the ECtHR enters the judgment in the joined cases;
– 4 February 2019: the Grand Chamber Panel accepted the applicants’ request that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber;
– 10 July 2019: the Grand Chamber hears the case.


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