New Delhi: The government is looking at how the Niira Radia tapes became public, after Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata group that is represented by Radia, approached the Supreme Court to protect his privacy.

Tata, several of whose conversations with Radia have been transcribed and published by two news magazines, sought that the government prevent further leaks of information and their publication.

Protecting privacy: A file photo of Tata group chairman Ratan Tata. Kamal Narang/The Hindu

The telephone of Radia, who also represents Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Ltd and Lavasa Corp. Ltd, had been tapped for a total of around 300 days in 2008 and 2009 by the income-tax department, which was investigating her in a tax-related case. Two weeks ago, news magazine Open and, subsequently, Outlook published transcripts of the lobbyist’s conversations with journalists, other lobbyists, politicians, and executives, including Tata. Some of the conversations indicate efforts to influence government policy and the media. The recordings, including several that weren’t transcribed and published, subsequently went viral and can be found across the Web, including on popular website YouTube.

The magazines haven’t mentioned their source. The recordings are also available on their websites. Tata’s petition asks for these to be taken down.

Tata called the series of events leading up to the recent expose of the calls in two national weeklies, “an unsanctioned invasion of privacy by the government" and accused it of leaking the conversations to private persons, including the press. He approached the apex court under Article 21 of the Constitution, which lays down every citizen’s right to life and includes the right to privacy as previously interpreted by the court.

Tata stated in the petition that he was not opposed to the government placing phone lines under surveillance, but said he held it responsible for not maintaining the secrecy of the material.

His lawyer, Harish Salve, told reporters at the Supreme Court: “Conversations can be recorded by the government. We have no quarrel with the government. But the government owes responsibility to the citizen to maintain secrecy and, therefore, they must prevent unauthorized publication," he said.

Tata also contended that since the recordings were made by the income-tax authorities for tax evasion purposes, the material should be used for that purpose alone, as was laid down in a previous apex court order. “Use of the intercepted material should be limited to the minimum that is necessary," says the petition.

The home ministry said that it would look into the matter and check if private persons had access to tapes before they were placed before the Supreme Court in the ongoing case on whether CBI should be monitored by the court as it investigates the alleged second generation (2G) spectrum scam.

The subject of this probe is the award of licences and air waves for 2G mobile telecom services in 2008, at the same rate at which similar licences had been awarded in 2000, around the time India’s mobile telephony boom was starting.

A. Raja was the telecom minister at the time the licences were issued in 2008, and, interestingly, some of the recordings concern him. Raja resigned on 14 November, even as the investigation heated up, and the government tried to defend itself from opposition parties.

Open published its article on the recordings on 18 November.

“We have asked the Intelligence Bureau and secretary revenue (Central Bureau of Direct Taxes) to hold an inquiry to check how these tapes reached private people. They will inquire whether the people had access to these tapes, before they were kept before the court as record or they had it after," said a senior home ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“If the tapes have been taken from the court records, it will give a clean chit to officials handling those tapes as it is already before the court. If not, some heads might roll," the official added.

The official also said that the ministry could ask publishers of Outlook and Open to explain their access to the tapes.

Outlook’s editor Krishna Prasad declined to comment. Open’s editor Manu Joseph said it was too early to comment on the magazine’s legal options. “It is the government’s responsibility to protect its material. If its recordings of telephone conversations have been leaked to the media, and the media has evidently used no illegal means to obtain the recordings, then the media in a free democratic country has the right to carry the material in public interest. There is precedence in several democracies, including India, where the media has gone ahead and published leaked government material in public interest. The demand that Open remove the Radia recordings is particularly absurd and anachronistic when set against the indisputable fact that these recordings are freely available now on YouTube and other websites," he wrote in an email.

An official in the Intelligence Bureau said it was clear to the agency that “private players" had access to the tapes and leaked them.

“We expect to submit a report in a week," added this person, who, too, did not want to be identified.

Although Tata’s petition is aimed at preventing leaks from the government, it could open up a debate on the freedom of the press.

Tata’s petition is likely to come up for hearing either on Tuesday or Wednesday, according to people familiar with the matter, who did not want to be identified.

Appu Esthose Suresh also contributed to this story.