A tricky issue relating to the protection of rights in confidentiality versus freedom of speech was the subject of a lengthy and somewhat repetitive decision of the European Court of Human Rights (Judge Garlicki presiding, Judges Bratza, Bonello, Mijovic, Bjorgvinsson, Bianku and Poalelungi, and L Early) this Tuesday in Financial Times Ltd and others v United Kingdom (App. No. 821/03).
On 30 October 2001 mega-brewery Interbrew, contemplating a possible takeover bid for South African Breweries (SAB), asked its advisers Goldman Sachs to prepare a preliminary working document. Even the existence of the document was confidential: it was market-sensitive since it disclosed a possible takeover bid. A little later, someone obtained a copy of the document and prepared copies of it, which the Financial Times newspaper (FT) claimed to be 'doctored' in that they contained a fabricated offer price and timetable for the bid. That person sent copies of the doctored document to various publishers of news.
* Even though the disclosure order had not been enforced, that had not removed the harm since, however unlikely such a course of action appeared, the order remained capable of being enforced. It followed that that order constituted an interference with the newspapers' right to freedom of expression.* On the basis that there was such an interference, it was next necessary to examine whether the interference was justified under Article 10(2).* The interference was one which was 'prescribed by law' within the meaning of Article 10(2). It was intended to protect the rights of others and to prevent the disclosure of information received in confidence, both of which were legitimate aims.* Since the aims of the interference were themselves legitimate, it next had to be asked whether that interference was necessary in a democratic society.* Freedom of expression was one of the essential foundations of a democratic society and the safeguards guaranteed to the press were particularly important. Further, protection of journalistic sources was one of the basic conditions for press freedom. Without such protection, sources might be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public on matters of public interest. As a result, the vital 'public watchdog' role of the press might be undermined and the ability of the press to provide accurate and reliable reporting might be adversely affected.* Having regard to the importance of the protection of journalistic sources for press freedom in a democratic society and the potentially chilling effect that an order for disclosure of a source had on the exercise of that freedom, such a measure could not be compatible with Article 10 unless it was convincingly justified by an overriding requirement in the public interest.* It was for the national authorities to assess in the first place whether there was a 'pressing social need' for the restriction and, in making their assessment, they enjoy a certain margin of appreciation. However in this case the national margin of appreciation was circumscribed by the interest of democratic society in ensuring and maintaining a free press. That interest would weigh heavily in the balance in determining whether the restriction was proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued.* Limitations on the confidentiality of journalistic sources called for the most careful scrutiny by the Court, whose role was not to take the place of the national authorities but rather to review the case as a whole, in the light of Article 10, and consider whether the decision taken by the national authorities fell within their margin of appreciation. The Court thus had to look at the interference and determine whether the reasons adduced by the national authorities to justify it were 'relevant and sufficient'.* Article 10 protected a journalist's right, and duty, to impart information on matters of public interest so long as he was acting in good faith in order to provide accurate and reliable information in accordance with the ethics of journalism.* Disclosure orders had a detrimental impact not only on the source in question, whose identity might be revealed, but also on the newspaper against which the order was directed, whose reputation might be negatively affected in the eyes of future potential sources by the disclosure, and on the members of the public, who had an interest in receiving information imparted through anonymous sources and who were also potential sources themselves.* The public perception of the principle of non-disclosure of sources might suffer no real damage where it was overridden in circumstances where a source was clearly acting in bad faith with a harmful purpose and disclosed intentionally falsified information. However, the courts should be slow to assume, in the absence of compelling evidence, that those factors were present in any particular case.* Given the multiple interests in play, the conduct of the source could never be decisive in determining whether a disclosure order ought to be made but would merely operate as one, albeit important, factor to be taken into consideration in carrying out the balancing exercise required under Article 10(2).