24 Oct 2016, 31 mins ago

On 10 November 2015 the European Court of Human Rights held that in the case of Couderc and Hachette Filpacchi Associés v. France there had been a violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The judgment concerned a ruling against the magazine Paris Match for having published information regarding Prince Albert II of Monaco’s private life. The Court found that given the nature of the information in dispute – the existence of the Prince’s son – the applicants could be understood as having contributed to the coverage of a topic of public concern, as given the hereditary nature of the Prince’s function as Head of State, such information is not confined within the private sphere.

On 3 May 2005, the Daily Mail published an article entitled “Is this boy heir to Monaco?” It detailed the claims of Ms Coste, a woman who proclaimed that her son’s father was Albert Grimaldi, who had become reigning Prince of Monaco following his father’s death on 4 April 2005. The article mentioned a forthcoming publication in Paris Match that would serve to elaborate further on this subject. Having been informed of this imminent publication, Prince Albert served notice on the applicants to refrain from publishing it.

In spite of the Prince’s notice to refrain, on 5 May 2005 the cover ofParis Match bore the headline “Albert of Monaco: Alexandre, the secret child”, accompanied by a photograph of the Prince with the child in his arms. The article inside consisted of an interview with Ms Coste, where she revealed intimate details of her relationship with the Prince, whilst confirming that he was the father of her child. She publicised her wish that he would acknowledge his son, stating her concern over her child’s psychological wellbeing. Following such public exposure of this matter, in a press release of 6 July 2005, the Prince formally acknowledged that he was the father of Alexandre.

On 19 May 2005, the Prince brought fixed-date proceedings against the applicants, referencing Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, the right to respect for one’s private and family life. He sought damages from the publishing company and an order that it publish the court’s ruling on the front cover of the magazine.

On 29 July 2005 the Nanterre Tribunal de Grande Instance (the “TGI”) ordered the company Hachette Filipacchi Associés to pay the Prince 50,000 euros in non-pecuniary charges. It ordered that details of the judgment were to be printed on the magazine’s front cover under the headline “Court order against Paris Match at the request of Prince Albert II of Monaco”. The TGI held that the article, including the accompanying photographs, fell within the most intimate sphere of love and family life and that it did not concern any debate of general interest. The judgment was immediately enforceable.

The applicants appealed against this judgment and the Versailles Court of Appeal suspended the immediate enforcement of the TGI’s judgment, only for them to pass their own judgment on 24 November 2005, where they upheld the decision reached by the TGI.

Whilst Paris Match were ordered to print on their cover the details of this judgment, in an act of defiance to what they perceived was an affront to their right of freedom of expression, the cover of this issue bore the headline: “Albert of Monaco. The truth has been punished”.

In addition to this, the applicants lodged an appeal on points of law against the Court of Appeals judgment. Alleging a violation of Article 10 of the European Convention they argued that the disclosure of a ruling sovereign Prince’s paternity was a news event relevant to public life, given the hereditary nature of the transmission of power in the Principality of Monaco. As the child was a potential heir to the Monegasque throne, his father could legitimise him at any time, and even if such a scenario was improbable, the situation was legally possible and could thus become the subject of a general debate regarding the future of the Monegasque monarchy. The applicants argued that the public had the right to be informed of such matters in their public interest, and this right extended to information concerning the private life of certain public figures. However, their appeal was subsequently dismissed.

The applicants complained that the judgment against them had amounted to unjustified interference with the exercise of their right to freedom on information. Relying on Article 10, the applicants appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. On 12 June 2014 a Chamber of the Fifth Section of the Court delivered a judgment, concluding that there had in fact been a violation of Article 10. The Government requested that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber under Article 43 of the Convention.

A hearing was held on 15 April 2015. The Court considered that it was necessary to assess the article published in Paris Match as a whole in order to determine whether the content of the interview disclosing the Prince’s fatherhood could be understood as constituting information on a question of public interest. Whilst the Court recognised that intimate details concerning the Prince’s relationship and supposed feelings towards Ms Coste were firmly outside the domain of public interest, nonetheless the publication as a whole and in context, and considered in the light of the Court’s case-law precedents, ultimately concerned a matter of public concern.

The Court reasoned that although a birth was an event of an intimate nature, it did not solely remain within the private sphere of the persons concerned by it, but it also fell within the remit of the public sphere since it was in principle accompanied by a public statement and the establishment of a legal parent-child relationship. In regard to the specific features of the Principality of Monaco, the Court established that there was an undeniable public-interest value, in the fact that the Prince, who was known at the relevant time to be single and childless, had a male heir. Thus the question of legitimation by marriage could be raised, even if such an eventuality was unlikely. Taking into account that Prince Albert was undeniably a prominent public figure, the Court considered that the domestic courts ought to have taken into account the potential impact of the Prince’s status as Head of State, and thus should have attempted to determine the parts of the contested article that belonged to the private domain, and what could fall within the public sphere.

Whilst the Court observed that admittedly the article delved into aspects of the Prince’s private life, in considering the article in its entirety, the Court found no reason to doubt that, in publishing Ms Coste’s account, the applicant could be understood as having contributed to the coverage of a subject of public interest. In light of this, the Court concluded that there had in fact been a violation of Article 10.