The Polish Supreme Administrative Court ("SAC") ruled in favour of an applicant's right to obtain a journalist's personal data in order to sue him in civil court for harm to the applicant's personal reputation. As a consequence, the SAC ruled against the journalists' right to privacy and journalistic secrecy.
In 2007, two journalists published an article in one of Poland's largest national daily newspapers (Rzeczpospolita) that allegedly harmed the personal reputation of the applicant. The applicant requested Presspublica, which publishes Rzeczpospolita, to reveal the journalists' private addresses in order to enable the applicant to bring a claim against them, which request Presspublica refused. The applicant tried unsuccessfully to sue the journalists for the alleged harm regardless but the civil court refused to hear the case as the complaint lacked the necessary information (the journalists' private addresses) and as a consequence adequate service of the complaint was not possible.
In 2008 and on the applicant's request, the Polish Inspector General for Personal Data Protection (GIODO) ordered Presspublica to disclose the private addresses of the journalists to the applicant.
Presspublica appealed and argued that such data are subject to journalistic secrecy according to the Press Law and that it was instead possible to cite the publisher's address in the court documents and use such work address for adequate service.
The Warsaw District Court dismissed those arguments and held that journalistic secrecy as defined in Article 15 of the Press Law relates to two situations:
- Firstly, it covers the right of privacy of a journalist but only when he has kept his identity secret when publishing the article (i.e when the article was published anonymously or under pseudonym); that was not the case here as the article was published in the (real) names of the journalists.
- Secondly, it covers the confidentiality of a journalist's sources of information but not the identity of the journalist as such if he decided to publish under his real name.
Journalistic secrecy was not applicable in this case.
The Court provided a number of reasons, including a consistent opinion of the Supreme Court, why a complaint against authors in a dispute regarding the infringement of personal reputation needs to cite the author's private address rather than a work address.
Presspublica was therefore obliged to reveal the private addresses of the journalists in order to enable the suit to go forward.
The SAC confirmed the lower court judgment and held that, provided that a request for disclosure of personal data is well substantiated (as in the case in question) and the disclosure of such data does not infringe the rights and freedoms of the data subject (the journalists in this case), the data controller (Presspublica) should disclose such data.
The SAC confirmed that journalistic secrecy does not cover the current case as the journalists had published the article under their real names and thus they precluded themselves from claiming confidentiality.
The SAC noticed that the applicant had a right, deriving from the Polish Constitution, to have their case heard by an independent and impartial civil court. By not disclosing the private addresses of the journalists, Presspublica prevented the case from commencing and was therefore breaching the applicant's constitutional right.
In its judgment, the SAC confirmed that journalists are not immune from potential suits in cases where they allegedly infringe the personal reputation of third parties in their published work. In that respect their right to privacy does not prevail over the rights of those affected by such publication. Only if the journalist published anonymously would his identity be protected. In which case, only the publisher or the chief editor would bear the risk of civil suit.