Monday 20 April 2009

Access to Information Judgment

Last week, the European Court issued its judgment in the case of Társaság a Szabadságjogokért (the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union) v. Hungary. In the case the Court did not recognise a general right to access to information, but did indicate that in some situations the state is bound not to hamper the free flow of information which is readily available and hwich is sollicited by social watchdogs, such as the press or even some NGOs (such as in this case). Importantly, in para. 37, the Court pointed out that it" considers that it would be fatal for freedom of expression in the sphere of politics if public figures could censor the press and public debate in the name of their personality rights, alleging that their opinions on public matters are related to their person and therefore constitute private data which cannot be disclosed without consent."

This is the press release of the Justice Initiative of the Open Society Institute, one of the third party interveners in the case:

NEW YORK, April 17, 2009—The Open Society Justice Initiative today applauded a decision by the European Court of Human Rights expanding the right of watchdog groups to access government information.

The decision, handed down earlier this week, recognized for the first time that Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees the "freedom to receive information" held by public authorities. The court noted the important role played by the media and other independent monitors in creating "forums for public debate" and emphasized that any interference with the ability of such groups to obtain information of public interest must be able to withstand the "most careful scrutiny." The court emphasized that governments have an obligation "not to impede the flow of information" on matters of public concern.

In 2004, a member of the Hungarian Parliament filed a complaint with the country's Constitutional Court over Hungary's national drug laws. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union—a rights group active in the field of drug policy—applied to that court to receive a copy of the complaint. Both the Constitutional Court and Hungary's regular courts denied the request on privacy grounds. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union took the case to the European Court of Human Rights alleging that the denial interfered with its right to access state-held information necessary to fulfill its role as a public watchdog.

This week's decision will help ensure that nongovernmental organizations in Europe and elsewhere can continue their important roles as government monitors and contributors to policy debates. In the words of the court, it would be "fatal" for democratic openness "if public figures could censor the press and public debate in the name" of their privacy rights.

The European Court is now the second regional human rights tribunal, after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, to recognize that the "freedom to receive and impart information and ideas," guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as regional human rights treaties, includes a right to receive information of public interest held by government authorities. Both courts highlighted the strong connections among the right to information, freedom of expression, and democratic accountability.
Their intervention submitted to the Court can also be found on their site. Many thanks to Darian Pavli for drawing my attention to this!