Full case report

Saaristo v Finland

Reference Application no. 184/06
Court European Court of Human Rights (Fourth Section)

Judge Bratza (President), Garlicki, Mijovi, Bjrgvinsson, Hirvel, Bianku, and Vuini

Date of Judgment 12 Oct 2010


Summary

Freedom of Expression – Article 10, European Convention on Human Rights – Privacy – Conviction for violation of privacy – Publication of private information relating to extra-marital affair between political candidate and aide – Fine, damages and costs awarded – Whether necessary in a democratic society


Facts

In 2000, during a presidential election campaign, the applicants published a short article, entitled “The ex-husband of [R] and the person in charge of communications for the Aho campaign have found each other”. The article stated that P, who had separated from his wife, had found a new partner, O. P’s wife R was known as a political reporter in election-related TV debates. The article mentioned that O was in charge of communications for the Aho campaign and that, in her civilian life, she was the communications manager in a specified pension insurance company, and a mother. The article went on to state that, before joining the campaign, she had been active in the same political party as P. Pictures of O and R were published alongside the article.

The applicants were convicted for having violated O’s private life and ordered to pay a fine, damages and costs.The court found that despite O’s position in the presidential campaign, she was not a public figure and her relationship with P was not such that the applicants could write about it without her consent. The information published, however accurate, was not necessary for examining any matter of interest to society.

The applicants appealed to the Turku Court of Appeal contending that, due to her position in the presidential campaign and as a local politician, she was a public figure, that the facts in the article were true and that the issue was important for public discussion since one of the main focuses of the presidential campaign was family values. P was a married father of four children, in contrast to the other candidate, who was a single mother cohabiting without being married. O’s extra-marital affair was therefore of importance to the public. The affair had been public so that information about it could not be private; it was connected to O’s public function; and was publication of the information necessary in order to discuss an important matter for society.

The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal, and was upheld by a majority of the Supreme Court, who held that the article focused on a personal love affair or intimate relationship rather than anything of political importance. O’s public function as an assistant to a political candidate in respect of communications did not justify disclosing information about her private life. P’s position did not justify publishing information about the private lives of others. The fact that their relationship was open and visible to outsiders did not mean that it was public or that information about it could be freely distributed in the media. One Justice gave a dissenting opinion, stating that O’s political activities and the importance of family values in the campaign meant that the information was conducive to the public good and its publication should not be penalised.

The applicants complained that their right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 10 had been violated.


Issue

Whether the fines and awards of damages and costs, agreed to be an interference with the applicant’s rights under Article 10, were necessary in a democratic society.


Held

Finding a violation of Article 10:

Civil servants acting in an official capacity are, like politicians, subject to wider limits of acceptable criticism than is the case of private individuals, although they do not knowingly lay themselves open to scrutiny of their every word and deed to the same extent as politicians, and should not therefore be treated on an equal footing with the latter when it comes to the criticism of their actions. When the Court has had to balance the protection of private life against freedom of expression, it has stressed the contribution made by photographs or articles in the press to a debate of general interest.

In the impugned article, facts were presented in an objective manner. There was no evidence or allegation of factual misrepresentation or bad faith. Nor was there any suggestion that details about O were obtained by subterfuge or other illicit means.

While O could not be considered as a civil servant or a politician in the traditional sense of the word, she was not a completely private person either; when taking up her duties as a communications officer for one of two presidential candidates, she must have understood that she would attract public interest and that the scope of her protected private life would become somewhat more limited.

The article had a direct bearing on matters of public interest, namely the presidential election campaign. Moreover, the facts that P’s ex-spouse had conducted election debates on television prior to the publishing of the article, and that the article had apparently been politically motivated and intended to affect the campaign, are also of relevance in this respect. The article was published during the presidential election campaign and so closely linked to it in time. As such the article did not only satisfy the curiosity of certain readers but it also contributed to an important matter of public interest in the form of political background information. The reasons given by the national courts, while relevant, were not sufficient to show that the interference was necessary in a democratic society.

The amount of compensation awarded to O was substantial. The bringing of criminal proceedings by the public prosecutor entailed the risk that a prison sentence might be imposed. Such sentences for press offences were only compatible with Article 10 in exceptional circumstances. The totality of the sanctions imposed was disproportionate.


Comment

The Strasbourg court has always required strong justifications for any restriction on political debate, holding that politicians’ public roles require them to withstand stronger criticism and intrusion into their private lives than ordinary citizens. This decision confirms that, depending on the circumstances, certain political aides will be treated in a similar manner.

The Court was also clearly influenced by the fact that the information published was accurate, objectively presented and not obtained by any subterfuge or illicit means.


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