European Court in Axel Springer Case: Publications on Actor’s Possession of Cocaine Allowed

On 7 February 2012 the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) rendered a judgment not only in the Caroline van Hannover II judgment, but also in the case of Axel Springer vs. Germany. This case resembles that of the Princess of Monaco.

The Axel Springer case is about the publication of two articles about a well-known German television actor in the daily newspaper Bild, of which the Axel Springer group is the publisher. The first article alleged that the actor – who thanks his fame mostly to his role as a policeman – had been arrested for possession and use of cocaine during the annual Munich beer festival (Oktoberfest). The actor went to the German court to oppose this publication, and succeeded, because Bild was forbidden to publish the statements any further. Almost a year later, a new article appeared in Bild about the matter, because the actor had been imposed a fine of €18,000 after having confessed to the use and possession of cocaine. This publication too was prohibited by the German court.

The opinion of the German judges on both articles is that the actor’s right to privacy outweighs Bild’s right to freedom of expression. The publications were not considered to contribute to a debate of general interest, and even if they would do so, this fact would not outweigh the actor’s right to privacy.

The ECtHR is of a completely different opinion. It considered the arrest and conviction of the actor to be public judicial facts that present a degree of general interest. After all, the public wants to be informed about criminal proceedings. The next question is whether this means that it is also justified to mention the actor by name. In the answer to this question, the ECtHR first observed that the actor played the main role in a very popular television series. It is interesting that the ECtHR also considered it significant that the actor played the role of a policeman in the television series, and was therefore charged ‘himself’ with the investigation of criminal offenses. According to the ECtHR, this fact contributes to the interest of the public to be informed of the actor’s criminal offenses. This is indeed understandable if you think about it, since it stirs up the interest of the public even more. The fact that the man was arrested in a tent during the Oktoberfest was also an important piece of news, according to the ECtHR. Finally, it was considered relevant that the actor himself regularly revealed details about his private life in interviews and his expectation that his private life would be effectively protected was henceforth reduced.

All things considered, the ECtHR ruled – in my opinion correctly – that the violation of the right to freedom of expression of Bild (Axel Springer) is not permitted. This means that the actor lost his case after all. Along with the Caroline II judgment, this is another fine victory for the freedom of speech. The Dutch (entertainment) press will also feel encouraged by this judgment when it reports from the private lives of celebrities.

Incidentally, this case is somewhat reminiscent of the Naomi Campbell case. This was about an article in The Daily Mirror about Naomi Campbell’s addiction to drugs. The photographs with the article were taken surreptitiously when Campbell left a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. However, The Daily Mirror was eventually ruled against for having infringed Campbell’s privacy. For a discussion of this case, see here (in Dutch).

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