Case Law: Saaristo v Finland, Court of Human Rights, Violation of Article 10

13 10 2010

On 12 October 2010 the Fourth Section of the Court of Human Rights, presided over by English judge Sir Nicholas Bratza, gave judgment in the Article 10 case of Saaristo v Finland. The applicants were a Finnish newspaper company, “Ilta-Sanomat Oy”, based in Helsinki; its editor-in-chief, and a journalist, Satu Sirkku Saaristo, The complaint concerned a conviction for publishing information about the private life of the chief communications officer of Esko Aho, a presidential candidate during the 2000 election campaign (pictured right).  The Court found that there had been a violation of Article 10.

The article stated that PN, who had separated from his wife, had found a new partner, OT who, it was in charge of communications for Esko Aho’s campaign. It was said that OT was the communications manager in a specified pension insurance company and a mother.  The article went on to state that, before joining the campaign, OT had been active in the same political party as PN.  Pictures of OT and PN’s wife were included in the article.  OT made a complaint to the police

On 1 February 2002 the District Court convicted the applicants for having violated OT’s private life. The first applicant was sentenced to a fine of €270 euros and the second applicant to a fine of €650. The applicants were jointly ordered to pay damages to OT for suffering amounting to €5,045.64 and costs amounting to €6,500, both sums with interest.

The Judgment

In its unanimous judgment the Court emphasised the essential role of the press in a democratic society [58] and repeated the well known point that

The limits of permissible criticism are wider as regards politicians than as regards a private individual” [59]

It pointed out that freedom of expression had to be balanced against the protection of private life – which covers

personal information which individuals can legitimately expect should not be published without their consent and includes elements relating to a person’s right to their image” [61]

In relation to the article complained of, the Court noted that the facts were presented in an objective manner and there was no evidence of misrepresentation or the obtaining of details about OT by subterfuge or illicit means [65].

It went on to note that OT has been active in local politics and although not a politician or a civil servant “she was not a completely private person either”.  It was of the view that

when taking up her duties as a communications officer for one of the two presidential candidates she must have understood that her own private life would also attract public interest and that the scope of her private life would become somewhat more limited” [66]

The article had a direct bearing on the presidential campaign – which was a matter of public interest.  In contrast to the Von Hannover case the article contributed to a matter of public interest, “in the form of political background information“. [67]

Finally, the Court noted the recommendation of the Parliamentary Assembly that prison sentences for defamation should be abolished and suggested that a similar approach should apply to infringements of privacy arising from publications. [69]

As a result of all these factors, the Court concluded that the interference with OT’s Article 8 rights was proportionate having regard to the competing interest of freedom of expression.  As a result, the sanctions imposed on the applicants were a violation of their Article 10 rights.

Comment

This case has a number of interesting features.  It provides a pithy summary of the court’s approach to private life in the publication context.  Article 8 protects personal information which individuals can legitimately expect should not be published without their consent.  This includes “elements relating to a person’s right to their image”.

Furthermore, the case shows how the Court approaches the balancing of Articles 8 and 10 when the private lives of those involved in politics is at stake.   The Court sensibly concluded that the public interest in political matters is not confined to elected politicians and civil servants but extends to those in a politician’s “entourage”.  It is clear that when political matters are in issue “public interest” will be broadly construed.  In this case it related to “political background infomation”.

But, as with all Strasbourg cases, the decision is fact sensitive.  The Court appears to have been influenced by three matters.  First, the relatively “anodyne” nature of the private information published.  Second, the fact that the information had not been obtained “illicitly”. Third and most importantly, the Court was influenced by the fact that the journalists had been prosecuted for a criminal “privacy” offence.   It seems likely that, if there had been a verdict in a civil case in relation to illicitly obtained “core private information”, the balance would have been struck in a different place.


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