After a Member of the Hungarian Parliament and other individuals lodged a complaint with the Constitutional Court for an abstract review of amendments to national drug legislation, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), a non-governmental organization active in the field of drug policy, requested a copy of the complaint from the Constitutional Court (paras. 7-9). The Constitutional Court denied the request on the ground that the complaint contained ‘personal data’ that could only be disclosed with the authors' permission. After litigating the denial without success in national courts, the HCLU filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights.
The Court noted that the activities of social ‘watchdogs’ like the HCLU warrant similar protection to that afforded to the press, as they are essential contributors to an informed public debate (para. 26). By creating obstacles to the legitimate gathering of information ‘on a matter of public importance’, the Hungarian authorities interfered with the applicant’s ‘right of access to information’ grounded in Article 10 of the Convention (paras. 27-28).
The Court found that the right of access to government information may be restricted at times to protect other rights, such as personal privacy, but any such restrictions must meet the three-part test set forth in Article 10(2): they need to be provided by law; serve one of the legitimate interests listed in Art. 10(2); and be necessary in a democratic society. Applying that test to the current facts, The Court found "it [to be] quite implausible that any reference to the private life of the MP, hence to a protected private sphere, could be discerned from his constitutional complaint," and concluded that "it would be fatal for freedom of expression in the sphere of politics if public figures could censor the press and public debate in the name of their personality rights” (para. 37).
This was the first time that the European Court recognized that Article 10 of the Convention guarantees the "freedom to receive information" held by public authorities, finding a violation of that right. The Court found that especially when the state has a monopoly over information of public interest in its possession, denying access to such information is tantamount to a form of censorship (para. 36). The Court remarked that “it is difficult to derive from the Convention a general right of access to administrative data and documents” but that its case law had gradually advanced nevertheless “towards the recognition of a right of access to information” (para. 35).
More information on the case.
Judgment of the Court (in French, Serbian, Turkish).
Written comments (Open Society Justice Initiative).