Privacy vs. freedom of expression

EU court limits privacy rights for public figures

The ECHR - European Court of Human Rights issued two rulings on Tuesday upholding the right of the media to report on celebrities and limiting celebrities' right to privacy. In Axel Springer AG v. Germany, the court examined whether a German actor's right to privacy was violated when a paper published a newspaper article and photos of his arrest for illegal drug possession at a public festival. The court determined that an injunction restricting publication of articles and photos of the actor was a violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of expression. The court determined that the actor was sufficiently well known to qualify as a public figure, which gives the public a greater interest in being informed about his arrest and the proceedings against him. Additionally, the court determined that the actor had a decreased expectation of privacy due to the fact that his arrest occurred at a public event and because he had previously released details of his private life through the media. In Van Hannover v. Germany, the court examined whether the right of privacy of members of the royal family of Monaco had been violated when two magazines published pictures of Princess Caroline of Monaco and her husband that were taken without their consent during a ski vacation. The court ruled that publication of the pictures did not constitute a violation of Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees a right to respect for private and family life. The court held that the pictures and accompanying text added to a debate of general interest about the royal family of Monaco, and that members of that family must be treated as public figures. In both cases, the court acknowledged the need to balance the right to privacy against the right of the media to freedom of expression, but also indicated that privacy rights are diminished when individuals can be considered public figures.

The ECHR rulings could have broad implications going forward and may play a role in the UK as the British government investigates whether tougher media regulations are necessary. In July, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the formation of a panel to investigate journalism practices in the nation, after allegations of "phone hacking" surfaced in the British media. The panel is investigating the media and reporters' relationship with police and politicians, as well as the tactics media agents use to get information. While the UK judges are currently split over the role ECHR decisions should play in the British court system, the ECHR's ruling could limit media reforms proposed by the panel, particularly regarding coverage of celebrities.

(Published by - February 7, 2012)

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