Bulgaria’s Commission for Protection of Personal Data has issued its opinion on personal information that the media can lawfully publish, after the comission was approached on the question by a company at the centre of a controversy about the acquisition of apartments by politicians.
The commission said that the processing of personal data for journalistic purposes, including names, age, date of birth, financial and property status, is lawful when done for the exercise of freedom of expression and the right to information., “taking into account the inviolability of private life”.
In such cases, in line with Bulgaria’s Personal Date Protection Act, the media organisation and the journalist are not obliged to require prior consent from the person concened, the commission said.
Subsequent processing of personal data acquired from a public register that is intended to provide information to the public should comply the EU regulation on personal data protection and the Bulgarian law on the topic.
The commission said that “as a general rule” data of people who are not public figures, who are not the subjects of a journalistic inquiry and who have no direct connection to a debate of public interest, should be published by the media or journalist “in an anonymous form”.
If this is impracticable in terms of the exercise of freedom of expression and the exercise of the right to information, publication should take place in accordance with the principle of keeping the data to a minimum, the commission said.
The commission issued the opinion after being approached by Arteks, the company at the centre of a controversy about apartments acquired by politicians from Bulgaria’s ruling majority. Reports about the transactions drew on information available in publicly accessible registers.
The reports have led to official investigations and in some cases, resignations from elected posts, including by the Ministry of Justice, three deputy ministers and the parliamentary leader of Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s political party. All of those under investigation deny wrongdoing.
Arteks asked the commission whether it was lawful to publish the information freely without the prior consent of the subject, whether publishing the age, date of birth and full names of individuals was legal, whether disseminating information about the financial and property status of people who are not public figures without their prior consent was lawful and whether putting detailed information about people on a separate database was lawful.
“The right to protection of personal data is not an absolute right. It should be considered in relation to its function in society and applied in a fair manner with other fundamental rights, in accordance with the principle of proportionality,” the commission said.
It said that the collection, analysis, interpretation and dissemination of up-to-date and publicly relevant information through the mass media was essential for journalistic activity. In turn, all journalistic activity is an expression of freedom of speech.
“In essence, journalistic activity requires the dissemination of information on matters of public interest,” the commission said.
“Undoubtedly, the processing of data aimed at detecting and reporting cases of probable corruption, abuse of office or financial resources from the state budget or from the EU budget is an act of public interest corresponding to the increased public attention and sensitivity of these topics.”
In this respect, account should be taken of the fact that information such as the age and date of birth of a person in the context of a journalistic inquiry may serve as an indicator for further investigation, for example, if there is a visible discrepancy between the age of the person and the financial options normally available to a person of similar age on the one hand, and the amount of the transaction on the other, the commission said.
It said that another important aspect in the balance between freedom of expression and the right to information, and the right to protection of personal data, was whether a person held a post covered by the anti-corruption law or was someone who through a role in public life had an influence on society.
“The underlying understanding is that public figures enjoy lower protection of their privacy than ordinary citizens. Accordingly, individuals who are not in the public domain should enjoy greater protection of their right to privacy,” the commission said.
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