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Privacy right more important than journalistic freedom to use publicly available information, says European court

Journalists can be prevented from publishing information otherwise publicly available that breaches individuals' right to privacy, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled. 27 Jul 2015

In its judgment on the case of Satakunnan Markkinapörssi and Satamedia versus the Republic of Finland, the ECHR ruled that a magazine that published publicly available tax data could be prevented from doing so to protect the privacy rights of individuals.

Satakunnan Markkinapörssi and Satamedia are media companies based in Kokemäki, Finland. They work together and are owned by the same people.

Satakunnan Markkinapörssi has been publishing Veropörssi magazine since 1994, giving information about Finnish people's taxable income and assets – information that is publicly available under Finnish law.

In 2003 Satamedia started a text message service where interested parties could request tax information on individuals, using data that had already been published in the magazine, the ruling said.

The Finnish data protection ombudsman contacted the companies and advised them to stop publishing in this way. The companies refused, because they felt that the request violated their freedom of expression, the ruling said.

The case went through several Finnish courts and the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) before being referred to the ECHR by the Finnish Supreme Court, which said the publishers could lawfully be prevented from publishing the data in order to protect the privacy rights of individuals.

The publishers argued that the conclusions reached by the Finnish Court constituted an unjustified interference with their rights to freedom of expression outlined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The ECHR disagreed, saying that the Finnish Supreme Court had been correct to see this as a fair balance of the Article 10 rights of the publishers and the data privacy rights of the affected individuals.

Article 10 covers the right to freedom of expression and the duties and responsibilities that go with that right.

The ECHR ruling confirmed that there is no overall protection for journalism under data protection legislation, and that where there is a clash between data privacy rights and Article 10, courts will look carefully at the public interest value of the publications, said media law expert Ian Birdsey of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com. The lower the public interest value, the more likely it is that data protection rights will have priority, he said.

"The case highlights the difficulties that the courts often face when seeking to balance competing rights. It will be interesting to see how the courts will assess the 'public interest value' on a case-by-case basis," Birdsey said.

Last year UK Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said that planned updates to EU data protection laws will not diminish the rights that journalists currently enjoy when processing personal data.

Graham said that a current exemption to the application of some data protection rules that apply in the UK was "safe", despite it not being explicitly provided for under the proposed EU General Data Protection Regulation, according to a report by Hold the Front Page.