In the public eye: EU mulls tighter privacy laws

7th February 2006, Comments 0 comments

BRUSSELS, Feb 7, 2006 (AFP) - What law should a French celebrity use to protest the use of compromising photos in a British tabloid? Or a British royal seeking redress over embarrassing revelations in a Spanish magazine?

BRUSSELS, Feb 7, 2006 (AFP) - What law should a French celebrity use to protest the use of compromising photos in a British tabloid? Or a British royal seeking redress over embarrassing revelations in a Spanish magazine?

Both are typical examples of the delicate problem which the European Union is battling to resolve, trying to balance respect for someone's private life with freedom of information.

On February 20, EU justice ministers will have another crack at finding a solution to a problem that media and publishing industry leaders have grappled with for years.

At the heart of the debate is a proposal by the European Commission to decide which law applies to seek damages in cases ranging from a road accident, to the use of a defective product or breach of privacy in the press.

At the moment there are no common rules within the 25-nation bloc on such cross-border disputes. Currently people can choose the court which they believe will apply a law most favourably to them.

The EU commission has proposed that cases be decided on the basis of where the damage was done to an individual's reputation.

So for example a Czech claiming to have his privacy invaded by Paris Match could take action against the French magazine under Czech law, or under Spanish law if he was reading the magazine while sitting on the beach in Ibiza.

But this is coming under increasing strain in a world where media outlets rarely stop at national borders, in particular with the development of Internet, cable and satellite.

Media companies complain that they would be forced to recognize privacy laws in all EU countries, which vary greatly.

"There is no protection of privacy in the United Kingdom whereas it is very strong in France," noted Pamela Morinière of the European Federation of Journalists, citing an obvious example of potential trouble.

The EFJ has backed a European Parliament compromise proposing the use of the law "of the country to which the publication is principally targeted, or if that is not clear the country where editorial control is exercised."

But this proposal has only minority support among EU governments, whose experts have studied some 10 possible compromise formulas.

The latest draft on the table proposes using the law "of the usual home address of the person seeking redress, unless the press organization shows that the publication in this state is unintentional or is only limited."

Faced with conflicting demands, EU justice commissioner Franco Frattini has said he will present yet another modified version this week.

"We have to acknowledge that none of the options so far explored produces a fair balance of press freedom and protection of the honour of private individuals," he told an EU parliament committee last week.

That new proposal will be closely studied by EU ministers later this month.

In the meantime the legal options remain unclear for the media, and anyone thinking they have had their privacy abused, lamented Diana Wallis, the EU lawmaker in charge of steering the new legislation through the EU parliament.

"The absence of legislation will leave an enormous hole in a world where media companies are becoming globalised and where editors need more certainty as to which laws apply to their publications," she said.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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