Refusing journalist to take interviews and taking photographes at a reception center for asylum seekers violated freedom of expression.
Szurovecz v. Hungary 8.10.2019 (no. 15428/16)
Media access to reception centers for asylum seekers and freedom of expression. Protection of journalistic research. The applicant, a news website reporter, complained about the authorities’ refusal to allow him to interview and take photos of the asylum seeker reception center, preventing him from recording and presenting the living conditions there.
The ECtHR stressed that research is an essential part of freedom of the press and should be protected. The ECtHR was not convinced that the limitations faced by the applicant in his attempt to cover an issue of major public interest, such as the refugee crisis in Hungary, were sufficiently justified. In particular, the authorities had put forward only brief reasons to justify their refusal, that is, potential problems with regard to the safety and privacy of asylum seekers, without any real balance between their interests.
The ECtHR unanimously ruled that there was a violation of freedom of expression.
The applicant, Illés Szurovecz, is a Hungarian national who was born in 1993 and lives in Mezőberény (Hungary).
While working as a journalist for abcug.hu, an Internet news portal, he lodged a request with the immigration authorities in September 2015 to have access to the Debrecen Reception Centre to write a report on the living conditions of asylum-seekers. He specified 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.
Mr 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 DECISION OF THE COURT…
The Court 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 first-hand 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 interference had been lawful, as it was based on section 2 of Decree no. 52/2007 (XII.11) of the Ministry of Justice, and its aim, protecting the private lives of asylum-seekers, had been legitimate.
However, 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.
Secondly, 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 second-hand 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.
Given that finding, the Court held that there was no need to examine the complaint under Article 13.
Just satisfaction (Article 41)
The Court held that the finding of a violation was in itself sufficient just satisfaction for the non-pecuniary damage sustained by the applicant.