ARTICLE 19, together with Privacy International, submitted a joint amicus brief to the European Court of Human Rights (the Court) in Nabrdalik and Moskwa v. Poland. The case concerns Polish journalists whose devices were forcibly searched by military officers as they were documenting events close to the Polish-Belarusian border in November 2021. In the submission, we show that searches of digital devices constitute serious interferences with the right to freedom of expression and privacy, guaranteed by the European Convention, and urge the Court to outline necessary safeguards to prevent violation of these rights.
In November 2021, Polish soldiers aggressively apprehended, handcuffed, and searched the phones and cameras of photojournalists Maciej Moskwa and Maciej Nabrdalik as they were documenting events close to the Polish-Belarusian border. Though officers recorded the entire encounter – which includes the officers discussing wiping their own fingerprints off the searched cameras – the Polish prosecutor’s office held that the actions did not amount to an abuse of authority.
The case is now pending at the European Court of Human Rights, where the two journalists allege the violations of their rights, including the right to freedom of expression and the right to private life, guaranteed in Articles 10 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In the submission to the European Court, we show how ‘mobile phone extraction’ (MPE), used by the Polish border police in this case, impacts human rights and is prone to abuse around the world.
In particular, we highlight that use of MPE is highly invasive for journalists and interferes with their ability to do their job. The contents of mobile phones and other electronic devices can reveal the stories a journalist is developing, with whom they are communicating, including confidential sources, and their specific travel plans. The devices – and the maintenance of their privacy – are integral to the work of journalists, and their unwarranted and unauthorised search therefore threatens freedom of expression and freedom of the media.
The intervention therefore urges the European Court to ensure that stronger justification for, and stricter judicial oversight over, search and seizure affecting journalists is needed to prevent unnecessary intimidation of journalists. Specifically, we submit that seizing and searching the digital devices of journalists and others must:
- Be in accordance with the law and be authorised by an independent judicial authority. Prior authorisation is especially important when searches of digital devices are involved and its standard must be higher when journalistic material is concerned;
- Be based on reasonable suspicion that an offence has been committed, not merely the fact that the person is crossing the border; and
- Be necessary and proportionate to the aim being pursued (for example, not extracting more data than is necessary).
This case is also important as the invasive and unlawful search of digital devices at the border is a widespread practice around the world, especially for migrants and refugees, and is the subject of extensive litigation. This case is an opportunity for the Court to address the harms of digital device searches, including violations of the right to free expression, on all rights holders.