Reference: (1996) 22 EHRR 123
Court: European Court of Human Rights
Date of judgment: 27 Mar 1996
Summary: Freedom of expression - Contempt of Court Act 1981 s.10 - Article 10 of ECHR - disclosure of journalist's source
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The applicant, a trainee journalist with The Engineer magazine, received information regarding the financial status of a company. The information was given by telehone from a source who wished to remain anonymous and appeared to come from a confidential corporate plan, one copy of which had gone missing. The company obtained orders preventing the applicant from disclosing the confidential information and for delivery up and, under s 10 Contempt of Court Act 1981, an order compelling the applicant to divulge the identity of his source. The applicant appealed unsuccessfully to the Court of Appeal and House of Lords. He refused to disclose his source and was fined £5,000 for contempt. He complained of a violation of Article 10 of the Convention.
Whether the order for source disclosure was prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society for the protection of the rights of the company.
Having regard to previous case law, and bearing in mind that it may be difficult to frame the law in this area with absolute clarity, s 10 Contempt of Court Act was sufficiently well prescribed to satisfy the requirement of foreseeability. However, bearing in mind that publication of the confidential information was already prohibited by injunction, the order for disclosure of the source was not necessary, and thus in breach of Article 10. The company’s legitimate reasons for wishing disclosure, namely to prevent further dissemination of the confidential information (other than by publication) and to take action against the source who was presumed to be an employee, were outweighed by the interest of a free press in a democratic society. If journalists are forced to reveal their sources the role of the press as public watchdog could be seriously undermined because of the chilling effect that such disclosure would have on the free flow of information.
This is a singnificant decision on the protection of journalists’ sources. The balancing process however still leads the English Court to make orders requiring journalists to identify their sources – see e.g. Ashworth Hospital v MGN and Interbrew SA v Financial Times