Max Mosley’s failure to make the European Court of Human Rights force publishers to give “prior notice” to subjects of their allegations before publication represents an important victory for freedom of speech and the public interest, said campaigns group Global Witness today.
“There is a lot more at stake here than whether the world needs to know how businessmen or footballers like to spend their spare time,” said Charmian Gooch, Founding Director at Global Witness. “The European Court’s decision means NGOs and responsible journalists can continue to bring matters of genuine public interest to light.”
Mosley’s argument that media outlets should be required to give two days notice of their intention to expose wrongdoing by public figures would allow those named time to seek an injunction to protect their privacy. Global Witness has previously joined Index on Censorship and other anti-censorship bodies in arguing for a much narrower legal definition of privacy, so that the principle is not open to abuse by public figures with something to hide.
Had this complaint been successful, it would have brought a sharp rise in the number of injunctions, with potentially disastrous consequences for organisations working to expose matters of real public interest.
Global Witness has experienced this threat first-hand. In 2007, the son of the President of the Republic of Congo tried to gag us with a super injunction because we put credit card bills and other documents on our website which showed that he spent $250,000 over two years on designer goods. The money most likely came from state oil revenues in a country where the vast majority survive on less than a dollar a day. We won, but it took us two years to recover the £50,000 we spent in costs. The chilling effect of injunctions on NGOs means that such issues can remain hidden from view.
Furthermore our staff, sources and partners overseas often work under threat of violent reprisals from those we work to expose, so prior notification could have posed a real security threat. It would also have made detailed reports which refer to large numbers of people unworkable.
“This judgment is a victory for common sense. After concerted lobbying by the Libel Reform Campaign, the UK government has promised to reform the UK’s outdated libel laws in recognition of their chilling effect on freedom of speech,” said Ms Gooch. “Had Mr Mosley won, it would have been a huge setback for the public interest.”
Click here to listen to Max Mosley and Index and Censorship discuss the implications of the ruling for freedom of speech on Radio 4’s Today programme.
Contacts: Oliver Courtney [email protected], + 44 (0)7815 731889.