Rights Court Sides With Ukrainian Journalist Seeking to Shield Phone Data

The ruling from Europe’s human rights court is seen as a win for investigative journalists across the continent. 

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. (Photo via CherryX/Wikipedia)

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — The European Court of Human Rights ruled for a Ukrainian journalist Thursday in a battle with government authorities over the seizure of her cellphone data. 

The ECHR found that the Ukraine authorities had violated Natalia Sedletska’s right to freedom of expression when they demanded 16 months of data from her smartphone after she reported on senior Ukrainian officials. 

“The court is not convinced that the data access authorization given by the domestic courts was justified by an ‘overriding requirement in the public interest’ and, therefore, necessary in a democratic society,” the Strasbourg-based court wrote. 

Sedletska, who hosts the award-winning TV program “Schemes: Corruption in Detail,” has been fighting the request for her location data, call logs and text messages since 2017. The Kyiv City Court of Appeal found in 2018 that, despite Ukrainian law protecting journalistic sources, the Office of the Prosecutor General could have access to Sedletska’s phone records, in part because she refused to give a statement in an ongoing investigation. 

At the time, Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko was investigating a political rival, the head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, Artem Sytnyk, for allegedly leaking information about ongoing criminal investigations. 

The ECHR rejected the Kyiv court’s reasoning on Thursday, finding in favor of press freedom.

“The court reiterates at the outset that the protection of journalistic sources is one of the cornerstones of freedom of the press. Without such protection, sources may be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public about matters of public interest. As a result the vital public-watchdog role of the press may be undermined, and the ability of the press to provide accurate and reliable information may be adversely affected,” the seven-judge panel wrote.

Established in 1959 by the European Convention on Human Rights, the court has frequently decided in favor of protecting the rights of a free press, one of the rights enshrined in the convention. 

“I hope that today’s decision will have long-term positive consequences for freedom of speech, independent journalism, and the practice of successful protection of sources – both in Ukraine and in other countries of the Council of Europe,” Sedletska said in a statement. 

Sedletska, who works for the Kyiv office of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was not informed of the information request. She found out via a comment on her Facebook page.

“RFE/RL applauds this ruling, which protects the confidentiality of journalistic communications and sets limits for executive power,” RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said. 

In 2018, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for the Ukrainian government to uphold its human rights obligations with respect to journalists. The resolution said the parliament was concerned “about the growing number of criminal cases being brought against journalists who have revealed cases of corruption in the state apparatus.”

Sedletska was awarded 4,500 euros ($5,300) in damages and 2,350 euros ($2,800) to cover her legal expenses. 

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