Journalism and data protection – new Strasbourg judgment

There has been much debate as of late as to how data privacy rights should be reconciled with journalistic freedoms under the data protection legislation. This is a difficult issue which surfaced domestically in the recent case of Steinmetz & Ors v Global Witness and is now being debated across Europe in the context of the controversial right to be forgotten regime. One of the many important questions which remains at large on this issue is: what degree of protection is to be afforded under the data protection legislation to those publication activities which might be said to be of low public interest value (i.e. they satisfy the curiosity of readers but do not per se contribute to public debate).

It was precisely this question which the European Court of Human Rights was recently called upon to consider in the case of Satakunnan Markkinapörssi Oy And Satamedia Oy V. Finland(Application No. 931/13). In Satamedia, the Finnish Supreme Court had concluded that a magazine which published publicly available tax data could lawfully be prevented from publishing that data on the basis that this was required in order to protect the data privacy rights of the individuals whose tax data was in issue. The Finnish Court held that this constituted a fair balancing of the Article 10 rights of the publishers and the data privacy rights of affected individuals, particularly given that: (a) the freedom of expression derogation provided for under the Finnish data protection legislation had to be interpreted strictly and (b) the publication of the tax data was not itself required in the public interest, albeit that it may have satisfied the curiosity of readers. The owners of the magazine took the case to Strasbourg. They argued that the conclusions reached by the Finnish Court constituted an unjustified interference with their Article 10 rights. The Strasbourg Court disagreed. It concluded that the Finnish Court had taken into account relevant Strasbourg jurisprudence on the balancing of Article 10 and Article 8 rights (including Von Hannover v. Germany (no. 2) and Axel Springer AG v. Germany) and had arrived at a permissible result in terms of the balancing of the relevant interests (see para. 72).

There are three key points emerging from the judgment:

– first, it confirms the point made not least in the ICO’s recent guidance on data protection and the media, namely that there is no blanket protection for journalistic activities under the data protection legislation;

– second, it makes clear that, where there is a clash between data privacy rights and Article 10 rights, the courts will closely scrutinise the public interest value of the publication in issue (or lack thereof);

– third, it confirms that the lower the public interest value of the publication in question (as assessed by the court), the more likely it is that the rights of the data subject will be treated as preeminent.

Anya Proops