Supreme Court: Public authorities can't define journalistic public interest

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Estonian courtroom interior. Source: ERR

A landmark Supreme Court ruling states that the media has a broad scope in defining what is in the public interest and that this cannot, in the normal run of things, be curtailed by the courts or by other public authorities, ERR's online news in Estonian reports.

The ruling follows a case where a journalist had been barred access to data that would normally be public, in the course of an investigative piece on the granting of pharmacy licenses.

The Supreme Court's administrative chamber noted that freedom of the press gives a journalist a broad margin of discretion in defining the public interest, in line with the the European Court of Human Rights' (ECHR) view that the media, in a democratic society, plays an important role as a "public watchdog".

Information gathering is an indispensable part of journalistic activity and on which is covered by the protection of press freedoms, the Supreme Court found. 

Moreover, restricting access to information to which the public is normally entitled is permissible only when the reasons are "particularly compelling", the top court, based in Tartu, ruled.

This means that in the court's view, public authorities, including the courts, generally have no legitimate cause to interfere with a journalist's right to report on topics in which there may be a significant public interest.

The journalistic interest in accessing the relevant data also does not necessarily have to be linked to the specific circumstances of a particular case, the court found, but it is sufficient if the general subject under investigation relates to a specific case and that the required information can indeed be obtained from the file in question.

The Supreme Court pointed out that the principle not only affects journalists, but others including academics, who may wish to gain an overview of administrative or judicial practice in a field they are studying.

Õhtuleht piece investigating potential irregularities in pharmacy sector

The ruling followed a case where reporter Priit Pärnapuu was covering a story on the granting of a license to a pharmacy for evening paper Õhtuleht.

Pärnapuu said his data request was valid as he had been covering pharmacies and the pharmaceutical business and hoped to get an overview of how the State Agency of Medicines (Raviamet) grants operating licenses to pharmacies. 

The pharmacy in question, Anne Apteegid OÜ, objected to Pärnapuu's request on the grounds that the data contained confidential business information which would damage the company if made public.

While the Supreme Court agreed that certain parts of the information contained in the file Pärnapuu wanted to access may have constituted confidential information, meaning the company must be able to obtain court redress if it feared the consequences of this information being made public, this should not lead to the total and overall concealment of the file requested.

In cases of justifiable interest, a journalist must be given the opportunity to inspect the non-confidential aspects of the information, the court added. 

Moreover, it is a matter for a court to define what constitutes confidential business information, not the company itself.

The State Agency of Medicines in late 2016 refused permission for a nw pharmacy to be opened at the Arsenal shopping mall in north Tallinn, as applied for by Anne Apteegid OÜ. The latter appealed this decision, but the appeal was overruled.

Case went up all three levels of Estonia's court system

In a separate case, the first-tier Tallinn Administrative Court granted Pärnapuu access to the Anne Apteegid data as per his request, but the second-tier Circuit Court overruled this, only for the Supreme Court to come down in favor of the original administrative court decision as announced Monday.

Pärnapuu's request may have carried with it a legitimate interest in analyzing whether the processing of pharmacy applications is in accordance with the law and whether the State Agency of Medicine applies its practices uniformly.

The Supreme Court also rejected the circuit court's assessment that a journalist can source the necessary public information from other public sources, if the original source used was closed to him or her.

The Supreme Court will be instructing the Tallinn Administrative Court to issue a new decision along those lines.

The pharmacy sector and ownership of pharmacies has since been substantively reformed, ostensibly putting the majority ownership of outlets into the hands of the qualified dispensing pharmacists who work there.

Õhtuleht editor-in-chief: Ruling sends message to ministries and parliament too

Õhtuleht editor-in-chief Martin Šmutov told ERR Monday that the Supreme Court decision is significant for at least two reasons.

He said: "First, the Supreme Court has pointed out that the media has a wide margin of discretion in defining issues of public interest, while public authorities, including the courts, usually have no grounds for intervening."

"Second, the Supreme Court found that complete concealment of a dossier is not justified and, even if the intention is to conceal something in a file, the court must first assess whether and to what extent this should be carried out," Šmutov continued.

The Supreme Court has also, with its latest ruling, been consistent on press freedoms and data and court proceedings confidentiality as compared with preceding rulings.

"The Supreme Court says this time and again clearly: In Estonian society, the reasons for classification and non-disclosure must be very precisely laid out," adding that the ruling sent a message to government ministries and the Riigikogu in addition to the courts.

The proceedings of laws, correspondence, etc. must also be made available to the public, the ruling means, something which is being tested by attempts to evade it by newer "tricks", Šmutov said.

The practice of holding many court hearings behind closed doors in Estonia has been scrutinized in the recent past.

This article was updated to include comments from Martin Šmutov.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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