In a unanimous ruling, the European Court of Human Rights has held that a rejection by Hungarian authorities of an application by a journalist to conduct interviews at a reception centre for asylum-seekers was a violation of the freedom of expression provided for by the European Convention on Human Rights.
The court said in a media statement on October 8 that research work was an essential part of press freedom and had to be protected.
It was not convinced that restricting the applicant’s ability to carry out such research work, which had prevented him from reporting first-hand on a matter of considerable public interest, namely the refugee crisis in Hungary, had been sufficiently justified.
In particular, the authorities had only given summary reasons, namely possible problems for the safety and private lives of asylum-seekers, for their refusal, without any real weighing up of the interests at stake.
In September 2015, Illés Szurovecz, a journalist for a news website in Hungary, to have access to the Debrecen Reception Centre to write a report on the living conditions of asylum-seekers. He said that he would only take photographs of those who gave prior consent and would obtain a written authorisation from them if need be.
His request was, however, rejected for reasons concerning the private life and security of asylum-seekers. In particular, many of those in reception centres had fled some form of persecution and could therefore be put at risk if exposed in the media.
Szurovecz sought a judicial review, without success. The administrative court declared his action inadmissible because the refusal was not an administrative decision under the relevant domestic law and was not therefore subject to judicial review.
The European Court of Human Rights reiterated that an essential part of protecting freedom of the press was ensuring journalists’ ability to carry out research work. Creating obstacles to journalists’ access to information could discourage or even prevent them from providing accurate and reliable information to the public and consequently from playing their vital role as “public watchdogs”.
Such had been the situation of the applicant when not being allowed to conduct interviews and take photographs inside the Reception Centre as he had been prevented from gathering information firsthand and from verifying asylum-seekers’ conditions of detention as reported by other sources. The Court found that that had constituted an interference with his freedom of expression.
The court found that the reasons given for such a restriction on the applicant’s freedom of expression, although relevant, had not been sufficient.
First, as concerned the need to protect asylum-seekers’ private lives, the immigration authorities had not apparently taken any notice of the applicant’s argument that he would only take photographs with prior and, if need be, written consent. The court also noted that reporting on the living conditions at the centre, although necessarily touching upon asylum-seekers’ private lives, had not sought to sensationalise, but to report on a matter of public interest.
Second, neither the domestic authorities nor the Government had indicated how exactly asylum-seekers’ safety could be jeopardised in practice, especially if the research only took place with their consent.
Thirdly, the court disagreed with the government that the applicant could just as easily have taken pictures and conducted interviews outside the Reception Centre and used information published by international organisations and/or NGOs.
“Those alternatives could in no way replace face-to-face discussions and first-hand impressions on living conditions. Indeed, in the eyes of the public secondhand data might not have carried the same weight or seemed as reliable.”
Lastly, the courts had not been able to carry out any balancing exercise of the various interests involved, given that the decision to refuse access was not subject to judicial review.
Moreover, bearing in mind the importance in a democratic society of reporting on a matter of considerable public interest, namely the refugee crisis in Hungary, the authorities’ decision to refuse access had not taken into account at all the applicant’s interest as a journalist in carrying out research or the public’s interest in receiving such information.
It followed that there had been a violation of Article 10, on freedom of expression, the court said.
(Photo: European Court of Human Rights)