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Human Rights Court upholds press freedoms

8 February 2012

Two European human rights cases testing the right to privacy against the freedom of the press have been decided in favour of the press.

Both cases were taken from the German courts, and concerned the lives of celebrities, one of them involving photos of their private life.

In the first case, Axel Springer AG, the publishers of the newspaper Bild, challenged an injunction and fine following publication of a front page article about a TV actor, unnamed in the case, who was caught in possession of cocaine in a tent at the Munich beer festival. The German court held that the right to protection of X’s personality rights prevailed over the public’s interest in being informed, even if the facts reported were not disputed. The case had not concerned a serious offence and there was no particular public interest in knowing about the offence.

In the second, Princess Caroline of Monaco and her husband, Prince Ernst August von Hannover, relying on an earlier ruling in favour of the princess, brought various proceedings seeking injunctions against the publication of photos showing them during a skiing holiday and taken without their consent, which had appeared in two German magazines. They challenged a German court ruling so far as it allowed the publication of them taking a walk, in conjunction with an article about the poor health of the princess's father, Prince Rainier, which it held was a subject of general interest, as was the family's response to the situation.

As respects the Springer case, the European judges accepted that the interest in publishing the articles was solely due to the fact that the offence involved a well known actor, it underlined that he had been arrested in public. His expectation that his private life would be effectively protected had furthermore been reduced by the fact that he had
previously revealed details about his private life in a number of interviews. The information published had been obtained from public authorities, and nothing suggested that Springer had not undertaken a balancing exercise between its interest in publishing the information and the actor’s right to respect for his private life. It could therefore not be said to have acted in bad faith.

While the sanctions imposed on Springer had been lenient, they were capable of having a chilling effect on the company. The court concluded that the restrictions imposed on the company had not been reasonably proportionate to the legitimate aim of protecting the actor’s private life. There had accordingly been a violation of article 10.

In Princess Caroline's case, the court could accept that the photo in question, in the context of the article, did at least to some degree contribute to a debate of general interest. It emphasised that the German courts had granted an injunction prohibiting the publication of two other photos showing the couple in similar circumstances, precisely on the grounds that they were being published for entertainment purposes alone.

The couple had to be regarded as public figures. The German courts had concluded that they had not provided any evidence that the photos had been taken in a climate of general harassment, as they had alleged, or that they had been taken secretly. Theyhad carefully balanced the right of the publishing companies to freedom of expression against the right of the applicants to respect for their private life, and had explicitly taken into account the court’s case law,
including the 2004 judgment in favour of the princess. There had accordingly been no violation of article 8.

Click here for the Springer judgment and here for the Princess Caroline judgment.

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