Reference: Appln no. 53678/00
Court: European Court of Human Rights
Judge: Sir Nicolas Bratza P, Pellonpää, Casadeva, Maruste, Pavlovschi, Borrego Borrego & Fura-Sandström JJ
Date of judgment: 16 Nov 2004
Summary: Human Rights - Criminal conviction of editor in chief and publishing company for infringment of politician's privacy - whether conviction and fine/damages were in breach of Article 10 ECHR
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The applicants were respectively the editor in chief and the corporate publisher of a Finnish tabloid. They published an article reporting on the criminal trial of a man charged with drunk and disorderly behaviour, which identified the man’s wife (‘Mrs A’) as Member of the Finnish Parliament. Mrs A instituted criminal proceedings for libel and violation of her privacy against the applicants and two journalists and claimed damages. She invoked s.15 of the Parliament Act which conferred certain immunities and privileges on members of Parliament in support of a claim for aggravated damages. Her privacy complaint succeeded. The applicants and the journalists were fined and Mrs A was awarded substantial damages. The defendants’ appeals to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court were rejected. The applicants complained to the ECHR that the conviction, fines and damages violated their Article 10 rights.
Whether the conviction was a legitimate interference with the applicants’ Article 10 rights, having regard to Mrs A’s Article 8 rights. Whether the damages awarded were excessive in all the circumstances and so violated the applicants’ Article 10 rights.
The applicants’ Article 10 rights had been violated by the decision of the Finnish court. The interference was not necessary in a democratic society. The interference with Mrs A’s Article 8 rights, if there had been one, had to be regarded as limited. Since she was a politician, she had to endure more from the press than ‘the average citizen’. Conversely the public had the right to be informed which may in certain special circumstances extend to aspects of a public figure’s private life, particularly where politicians were concerned. The automatic and unqualified application of section 15 of the Parliament Act had nullified the competing interests guaranteed by Article 10. The severity of the fines and damages, when viewed against the background of a limited interference with Mrs A’s private life, was disproportionate.
Little in this case is novel. Nonetheless it is notable that in evaluating the strength of Mrs A’s Article 8 claim as part of the analysis of whether the Finnish court’s decision was Article 10(2) ‘necessary’, the ECHR regarded it as relevant that “there is no evidence…of factual misrepresentation or bad faith on the part of the applicants.” (para. 44). This suggests that publishing falsehoods is qualitatively different from publishing intrusive but true material and, in terms of the ambit of legitimate repercussions for such publication, may warrant greater interference with the publisher’s Article 10 rights. Moreover, the Court considered it germane that the articles at issue had not for the first time disclosed Mrs A’s identity in the context of the criminal proceedings against her husband (para. 47). This arguably lends support to the continuing availability of public domain as a defence to privacy claims.