European Court to hear journalist’s challenge to surveillance powers of Russian security service

22 September 2014

A journalist’s challenge to Russia’s sweeping surveillance powers over mobile phone communications will take a step forward this month in a rare public hearing of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights on Wednesday 24 September 2014.

Roman Zakharov, a journalist from St Petersburg, is challenging the law on surveillance in Russia which allows the Federal Security Service known as the FSB (the successor to the KGB) to monitor mobile phones.

Hearings of the Grand Chamber are reserved for cases of exceptional importance.

Mr Zakharov complains that Russian law requires mobile phone operators to install equipment which enables remote interception of telephone communications by the FSB. He also complains that parts of the relevant law are secret and have never been published.

Zakharov, a journalist at the Glasnost Defence Foundation, is represented by lawyers from the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, based at Middlesex University in London, and the Russian NGO Memorial, based in Moscow.  He first tried to challenge the law in the domestic courts in Russia in 2003, only for his case to be dismissed in 2006, at which point he turned to the European Court of Human Rights to seek justice. Some eight years later, on 24 September 2014, a panel of 17 judges will consider his case against Russia.

Under the European Convention on Human Rights, Mr Zakharov complains that the domestic law on secret monitoring of mobile phones violates his right to respect for his privacy (Article 8).

He complains that the domestic law does not have sufficient safeguards to prevent unauthorised monitoring by the FSB, and is not suitably accessible. He also alleges that he has no effective domestic remedy for his complaint (Article 13).

Roman Zakharov commented on the case:

I hope that the Court can find a balance of interests between citizens’ rights and security. Currently these rights are not properly protected. Worse still, government authorities, in Russia and abroad, fail to understand that a lack of transparency with regards to special methods of investigation – such as phone tapping or reading emails – leads to inefficacy in policing and the secret services, the very same structures these methods are seeking to aid.

Prof. Philip Leach, Director of EHRAC, commented:

“The FSB’s very broad surveillance powers are simply not subject to adequate controls. There is no proper judicial authorisation procedure, no independent scrutiny and no legal redress for victims. The system needs to be completely overhauled.”


FSB surveillance is regulated in Russia by the following laws: the Communications Act of 7 July 2003, the Operational-Search Activities Act of 12 August 1995, the Federal Security Service Act of 3 April 1995 and various orders issued by the Ministry of Communications. Order No. 70, issued by the Ministry of Communications on 20 April 1999, sets out the technical requirements which must be fulfilled by the equipment which is installed by mobile phone operators. However, the addendums to Order No. 70 (which describe the technical requirements) have never been published.

The Glasnost Defence Foundation monitors respect for journalists’ rights and the right to freedom of speech.