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    Searches and Device Seizures

    Module 4: Surveillance of Journalists, Searches and Digital Device Seizures

    Digital devices such as phones, cameras, laptops, and storage devices have become essential tools for journalists in conducting their work. They are used, for instance to conduct for research, recording, communicating with confidential sources and other journalists, and for publishing content. However, such devices often become subject to seizures and searches by authorities, in particular in situations perceived as sensitive, such as when covering protests(1) or at national borders(2). As civil society organisations are documenting growing number of seizures and (forensic) searches of journalists’ digital equipment,(3) safeguarding digital security remains an important factor to ensure the functioning of the press. Practical tips for journalists covering protests can be found here.

    Through searches and seizures, authorities obtain access to protected materials, including the identity of journalistic sources, thus endangering their safety and creating a chilling effect. The search of mobile devices is particularly intrusive due to the quantity and the sensitivity of the data accessed. Such measures infringe on the right to privacy (Article 8 ECHR) and freedom of expression (Article 10 ECHR) and can only be justified if they meet the cumulative criteria of the so-called three-part test. In addition, the search of journalists’ home, workplace and the seizure of their material must be accompanied by adequate and effective procedural safeguards.(4)

    The ECtHR has clarified that:

    “journalists should enjoy a broad scope of protection, including a range of freedoms that are of functional relevance to the pursuit of their activities, such as: protection of confidential sources; protection against searches of professional workplaces and private domiciles and the seizure of materials, protection of news and information-gathering processes […]”(5)

    Special attention must be paid to the protection of journalistic sources,(6) a principle which, in the words of the ECtHR, is “one of the cornerstones” of press freedom and essential to enable the press to fulfil its public-watchdog role.(7)

    The ECtHR has applied these numerous cases, confirming for instance that the search of a journalist’s laptop at a border crossing violated Article 8 ECHR due to the lack of effective and adequate safeguards in Russian domestic legislation and practice.(8) In Sorokin v. Russia, the ECtHR found a violation of Article 10 ECHR after a journalist’s flat and his electronic devices, which contained information related to his work, were searched without any procedural safeguards to protect the confidentiality of his sources.(9) In Nagla v. Latvia, the ECtHR stressed that:

    “the right of journalists not to disclose their sources cannot be considered a mere privilege to be granted or taken away depending on the lawfulness or unlawfulness of their sources, but is part and parcel of the right to information, to be treated with the utmost caution.”(10)


    1. See for instance Media Defence, Reporting at Protests: Factsheet (undated), (accessible at Back
    2. See for instance Article 19, European Court of Human Rights: Search of journalists’ devices at border (31 August 2023), (accessible at Back
    3. For example in West Africa: MFWA, Seizure and Destruction of Journalsits’ Digital Tools: The Data Privacy and Censorship implications (2 April 2020), (accessible at Back
    4. CoE Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists, The Protection of Journalistic Sources, A Cornerstone of the Freedom of the Press (June 2018), (accessible at Back
    5. ECtHR, Man and Others v. Romania, App. No. 39273/07, §131, 19 November 2019. Back
    6. See for instance CoE Committee of Ministers, Recommendation No. R (2000) 7 of the Committee to Ministers to member states on the right of journalists not to disclose their sources of information (8 March 2000), (accessible at Back
    7. ECtHR, Sedletska v. Ukraine, App No. 42634/18, §§54-55, 1 April 2021; see also ECtHR, Telegraaf Media Nederland Landelijke Media B.V. and Others v. The Netherlands, App No 39315/06, §127 22 November 2012; ECtHR, Goodwin v. The UK, App No. 17488/90, §39, 27 March 1996. Back
    8. ECtHR, Ivashchenko v. Russia, App. No. 61064/10, §§63-69, 93, 13 February 2018. Back
    9. Dirk Vorhoof, European Court of Human Rights: Sergey Sorokon v Russia (2022), (accessible at Back
    10. ECtHR, Nagla v. Latvia, App No 73469/10, §97, 16 July 2013. Back