Access to Public Information
Company Doe v. Public Citizen
Closed Expands Expression
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The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that Hungary violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) when it denied a non-governmental organization access to public documents. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) requested access to a complaint submitted to the Constitutional Court by a Member of Parliament. The ECtHR stated “the law cannot allow arbitrary restrictions which may become a form of indirect censorship” [para. 27] and argued that the NGO’s role could be compared to that of the media as a social “watchdog” in promoting public debate.
The Hungarian non-governmental organization (NGO) Társaság a Szabadságjogokért (Hungarian Civil Liberties Union) had requested access to a complaint submitted by a Member of Parliament (MP) to the Constitutional Court. The subject of the complaint was the proposed revision of the criminal code regarding drug offenses, a topic of great interest to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union.
The Constitutional Court denied the request on the basis that the complaint could not be accessed without its author’s approval. The NGO brought the case to the Budapest Regional Court and the Court of Appeal, but these attempts were also unsuccessful. Specifically, the Court of Appeal ruled that the document contained personal data of the MP, which could not be made public.
The ECtHR ruled that Hungary violated Article 10 of the ECHR when it denied access to documents of public interest. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union originally appealed to the ECtHR with the claim that access to official documents was essential for an informed public debate, “since one could not form or hold a well-founded opinion without knowing the relevant and accurate facts.”
The ECtHR stated “the law cannot allow arbitrary restrictions which may become a form of indirect censorship” [para. 27] and argued that the NGO’s role could be compared to that of the media as a social “watchdog” in promoting public debate. The ECtHR found that Hungarian authorities created obstacles that prevented access to readily available information, effectively exercising a form of censorship, which is a breach of Article 10 of the ECHR. The decision became final on July 14, 2009, and cannot be appealed.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The ruling is consistent with Resolution 428 (1970) of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which states that authorities have a duty to provide access to information on matters of public interest in order to enable the media to give complete information. While the right to access public documents is not explicitly granted by Article 10 of the ECHR, the jurisprudence of the ECtHR seems to be increasingly in favor of such an interpretation, at least in some circumstances.
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