In a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”) handed down in July 2015, the right to respect for individuals’ privacy balance trumped journalists’ right to freedom of expression.

In the case of Satakunnan Markkinapörssi and Satamedia v. the Republic of Finland, it was decided that Finnish magazine, Veröporssi (“V”), could be prevented from storing, publishing and offering an SMS enquiry service involving personal tax information about individuals. This was despite the fact that (a) the information had already been published by the Finnish tax authorities and (b) V had been publishing annual information about individuals’ taxable income and assets. 

This case has a long history. Back in 2003, V’s publishers were informed by the Finnish Data Protection Authority that their handling and publishing tax information breached data protection laws and they were advised to stop. The publishers refused, arguing that to forbid them to use the data in this way breached their right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (the “Convention”), and amounted to censorship. The public availability of taxation data in Finland in general was exceptional in Europe.

Prior to the case before the ECHR, the matter came before the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”). On 16 December 2008, the CJEU gave its judgment (Case C‑3/07 Tietosuojavaltuutettu v. Satakunnan Markkinapörssi Oy and Satamedia Oy) confirming that activities involving processing personal data from material that had already been published in the media, also fell within the scope of the Data Protection Directive (95/46/EC).

After further years of litigation in Finland, the publishers of V brought a claim under the Convention against the Finnish Government. The ECHR was required to balance the Article 10 rights of the publishers with the Article 8 rights (to respect for private and family life) of the individual tax payers. The court found that there had been no breach of Article 10 on these particular facts. The ECHR applied established criteria on achieving the balance between Convention Articles 8 and 10, including: (a) contribution to a debate of general interest; (b) method of obtaining the information and its veracity/circumstances in which the information was taken; and (c) content, form and consequences of the publication.

The ECHR agreed with the earlier Finnish Supreme Administrative Court, finding that the publication of the whole database collected for journalistic purposes could not be regarded as journalistic activity, and that the public interest did not require publication of personal data to the extent that had been seen in the current case. The same applied also to the SMS-service.

This is an interesting case. The court found essentially that the magazine’s processing of personal data went further than necessary for the publication of newsworthy tax information. The judgment tends to suggest that handling or publishing personal data on the basis of “journalistic purposes” may be subject to closer, qualitative scrutiny in future.