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HFHR on mass surveillance

The European Court of Human Rights hears two cases that concern mass surveillance of citizens by state bodies. In both cases the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights presented amicus curiae briefs in which it invoked standards of privacy rights and freedom of speech in the context of threats to journalistic sources of information.

In the first case, Big Brother Watch et Al. v. the United Kingdom, the applicants allege that they might have been spied on by the General Communications Headquarters and that UK’s secret services might have received information on the applicants’ electronic activities from their foreign counterparts. The applicants argued that these actions violated their right to privacy.

In its brief the HFHR described the development of judicial practice of disclosure of information about the use of mass surveillance tools by Polish security services in the light of the information disclosed by Edward Snowden (to find out more about this, visit this site).

The Foundation’s brief also referred to a judgment of the Constitutional Tribunal from July 2014, in which the Tribunal questioned a significant majority of Polish provisions on covert investigative methods and security services’ access to telecommunication data.

The other case results from the application submitted by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent non-profit organisation working in the area of investigative journalism. According to the applicants, the government of the United Kingdom has illegally captured and processed electronic data of citizens, including media professionals, which constituted a major violation of not only the right to privacy but also freedom of expression.

In its brief the HFHR noted that the extensive powers of secret services in this area are currently the greatest challenge to protection of journalistic sources of information, which is the key for the fundamental role of the media, namely that of the public watchdog.

“In our brief we indicated that the services’ free access to data concerning journalists’ communication constitutes a circumvention of the guarantees resulting from the principle of reporter’s privilege, and undermines the relationship of trust between journalists and their sources”, says Dorota Głowacka, a lawyer of the HFHR. “This means that persons who communicate information important for the public interest to journalists may start to be afraid of contacting the media because of the risk of disclosure”, Dorota Głowacka says.

The HFHR’s brief in the case of Big Brother Watch et Al. v. the United Kingdom may be read here.

The HFHR’s brief in the case of Bureau of Investigative Journalism v. the United Kingdom may be viewed here.


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