Saturday, 14 November 2009

Press Freedom victory or ‘right to privacy’ violation?

The Guardian newspaper (in the UK) reported that media outlets have been granted a ‘right to attend hearings held in normal secretive court about celebrity with learning difficulties’.

This will be ‘the first time’ media is allowed to attend such proceedings.

Described as a victory for openness (for the press only and probably not for the victims), according to the report, the court ‘will allow media to attend hearings about whether a young man with an international reputation should have decisions made for him by others’.

“The man, A, described in the judgment as famous but not permitted to be named, is being considered by the little-known court because of concerns that his condition makes him unable to manage his own affairs.

Any intelligent member of the public drawn to these stories will appreciate both that A must earn significantly and that he must be incapable of managing those earnings," said Lord Justice Hedley, giving judgment in the high court. "That member of the public might therefore have a legitimate interest in knowing, given that proceedings have been instituted, how these matters are regulated," the Guardian newspaper reported yesterday.

This somewhat victory for press freedom – although the same cannot be aid for the [young] man – came after indications by industry players, including the Guardian newspaper, in wanting to ‘scrutinise proceedings concerning children and divorcing adults.’

However, reports the newspaper, the court of protection, which oversees decisions about adults with impaired mental capacity, is still one of the few courts that sits in private.

This challenge brought forward by industry players was ‘the first to challenge the court's practice of hearing cases in private by showing that there [was]… good reason for them to attend the hearings,’ according to the Guardian.

“Lawyers for the press argued that the principle of open justice – which generally requires cases be held in public – should apply to cases of adults with impaired mental capacity where there is a public interest in the case.

The ruling is being hailed as a victory for freedom of expression, which the Human Rights Act requires to be balanced against the right to privacy.

But lawyers representing the man criticised the interest of the press, arguing that the media were interested in his private affairs, including his finances and his medical condition, rather than matters genuinely in the public interest
,” the Guardian newspaper reported yesterday.

This case is a reminder of a fight between what seemed to be Press freedom in the public interest and the judicial independence the South African Judicial Service Commission and Media et al.

According to Mail & Guardian newspaper at the time which was also party to the case, JSC opposed the application by Avusa, the Independent Group and Freedom of Expression Institute seeking ‘to force the commission to push ahead with a formal, public inquiry against the judge’.

Unfortunately, read the judgment:

"The reasons advanced by the JSC do not justify the closed nature of the proposed proceedings. Any benefit that may or might have been be gained by a hearing ‘outside the intrusive glare of publicity will be discounted by negative perceptions of the judiciary and the administration of justice in general. This matter has attracted immense public interest and has been the subject of a debate in the media. There is every need to ensure the public's continued access to the issues".

Therefore, just how true is the statement by lawyers representing the ‘young man’ that media: “were interested in his [the young man] private affairs, including his finances and his medical condition, rather than matters genuinely in the public interest”?

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