The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, welcomes the decision of Israel’s High Court of Justice ordering the government to provide exemptions for journalists from coronavirus-related mobile phone tracking.

The decision was part of a broader ruling by the High Court on April 26 saying that Israel’s domestic security service Shin Bet cannot continue tracking the mobile phones of persons infected with COVID-19 unless the government incorporates such a procedure into law. The case was brought by a coalition of rights organizations, including the Union of Journalists in Israel.

“Freedom of the press and the protection of journalistic sources is important” at a time of national crisis, the panel of three judges, led by Chief Justice Esther Hayut, said in the ruling.

In its petition, the Union of Journalists requested the court to order that journalists be excluded from the surveillance measures in order to protect the freedom of the press and journalists’ sources. The petition said that such surveillance would have a chilling effect and may prevent sources from speaking to journalists.

“We welcome this ruling by Israel’s High Court of Justice underscoring that fundamental rights and the rule of law must be upheld even in crisis situation such as the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “Mobile phone surveillance poses a serious threat to press freedom, and its use – to the extent it can be justified at all – must be balanced against the rights of journalists to protect their sources, must carry strong safeguards to prevent any form of misuse and must be strictly limited to the purpose and duration of the immediate health crisis. We urge the Israeli government to ensure that any surveillance system complies, at an absolute minimum, with the High Court’s requirements.”

The court said in its ruling that in order to protect journalists’ sources, the  government must ensure that the law formalizing mobile phone surveillance allows journalists diagnosed with the virus to ask for a court order within 24 hours prohibiting their cell phone data from being given to Shin Bet. However, these journalists will have to notify sources they had met within the two weeks prior to their diagnosis.

The controversial surveillance of mobile phones began a few weeks ago in the country following the spread of COVID-19. Since then, the health ministry and Shin Bet have been using cell phone and credit card data to track the movements of coronavirus patients. Such surveillance had previously been restricted to counterterrorism operations.