European court clears HS, raps Finland in privacy vs. freedom of information case
HS vindicated in case involving disclosure of love affair of campaign worker
The European Court of Human Rights has reversed decisions by Finnish courts that had ruled that Helsingin Sanomat had violated the privacy of a woman involved in the presidential campaign of former Centre Party leader and Prime Minister Esko Aho.
In a decision handed down in 2007, the Helsinki Court of Appeals imposed fines on Janne Virkkunen, who was then the editor-in-chief of Helsingin Sanomat, and on the newspaper’s former journalist Susanna Reinboth for privacy violations.
The European Court of Human Rights found that the decision constituted a restriction on freedom of expression, and ordered the state to pay more than EUR 29,000 in compensatory damages, and EUR 8,000 in court costs.
The case dates back to February 2000, when the late-edition tabloid Ilta-Sanomat ran a story about an extramarital relationship of a woman who was part of Aho’s campaign organisation.
Ilta-Sanomat saw this as being in conflict with the campaign, which emphasised Christian family values.
The case brought the newspaper a fine in 2002 for violating the woman’s privacy.
At the time, Helsingin Sanomat ran a story on the sentence imposed on Ilta-Sanomat, mentioning the woman’s name, as well as information on her private life.
As a result, Helsingin Sanomat was also sentenced at the district court and appeals court levels.
The European Court of Human Rights decided the Ilta-Sanomat case in the newspaper’s favour already in October of last year.
The court found that writing about the woman’s affair was legitimate, because she was not a completely private person; because of the public nature of her work, she was seen to be in a position comparable to that of politicians and civil servants.
In its Tuesday decision, the court found that the only significant difference between the Helsingin Sanomat and Ilta-Sanomat cases was that the Helsingin Sanomat item was not published until a year after Aho’s election campaign.
In its decision, the European Court of Human Rights pointed out that information on the private life of the woman had been made public earlier, and that the news that Helsingin Sanomat reported was based on a public trial and the court decision that came from that trial.