National Security, Privacy, Data Protection and Retention, Protection of Sources, Surveillance
Ben Meir v. Prime Minister
Closed Expands Expression
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The High Court of Delhi dismissed the plaintiff Petronet LNG Ltd.’s claim for a permanent injunction restraining the defendant news provider Indian Petro Group from publishing confidential and/or misleading information.
The Plaintiff based its claim on breach of its right to privacy and confidentiality of information. The Court dismissed the Plaintiff’s claim of privacy and said that although it was entitled to confidentiality of information the Defendant’s publications were protected speech and could not be restrained by injunction.
The Court said that it had to carry out a balancing exercise “weighing the public interest in maintaining confidence with a “countervailing public interest favoring disclosure”.
The Plaintiff, Petronet Ltd., is a public company, promoted by four public-sector undertakings, that imports liquefied natural gas (LNG) and sets up LNG terminals. The Defendant is a website that describes itself as India’s largest news and informal market intelligence provider on Indian Oil and Gas, Power and Fertilizer sectors.
The Plaintiff sought a permanent injunction against the Defendant to restrain it from publishing price-sensitive and confidential information without the consent of the Plaintiff, as well as the removal of existing news items. The Plaintiff contended that there was no objection to information already in the public domain. However, the Plaintiff said that information regarding business negotiations that haven’t been concluded prejudices its market share value, has an adverse effect on the gas industry and results in a material breach of trust by the Plaintiff that suspends negotiations.
The Plaintiff relied on its right to privacy under the Constitution as well as its own obligation to protect price-sensitive information under government regulations.
The Defendant argued that the negotiations involved huge sums of public money and it was the duty of the media to report objectively on such commercial transactions. Further, if the information was so confidential the Plaintiff should have kept it to itself and the fact that the media had access to it meant either that the information was not confidential or that the Plaintiff was in breach of its duty to shareholders and business partners to keep such information confidential. For example, The Defendant referred to a published news item that covered foreign currency convertible bonds, a subject that was commonly reported about on commercial-news websites.
Ravindra Bhat, J.
The Court first addressed the Plaintiff’s claim to a right to privacy. It said there were two fundamental flaws with its contention: firstly, the Plaintiff was not a natural person and therefore did not enjoy the fundamental right to life which included the right to privacy (even though certain limited fundamental rights may be enjoyed by artificial persons); secondly, these rights were available against the State and were not maintainable against non-State actors.
However, the Court agreed that corporations could have claims of confidentiality of private information where they established that the information could lead to adverse commercial consequences. The suit was maintainable in this regard.
The Court said that the right to freedom of speech and information had to be considered when adjudicating on claims for a protective injunction. The Plaintiff had to establish that the news items were of such a sensitive nature as to warrant prior restraint. On the facts of the case, the Court found that the Plaintiff had failed to establish that the publication prejudiced its commercial interests.
Further, the Court found that the Defendant had established public interest in the negotiations of a public company where a large part of the shareholding was owned by public sector companies (owned by the government) and by the general public directly.
The Court held that freedom of press was of paramount importance, even though it may even overstep its limits at times, and must not be lightly interfered with.
For all these reasons the Court dismissed the Plaintiff’s claim.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case expands freedom of expression by emphasizing the freedom of the press and its function as a social watchdog on government and all other sources of power and influence.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
This is a decision of the High Court and binding on all future decisions of the High Court and lower Courts in the State, unless overruled by the Supreme Court or a larger bench of the same Court. It also has persuasive value for High Courts in other States and expresses the position of the law, unless there’s a conflicting decision of another High Court.
In reaching its decision the Court carried out a detailed and wide-ranging review of international treaties and case law notably from the U.S., UK, Australia and the European Court of Human Rights, in addition to national laws and precedent.
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