Al Jazeera and AT&T Must Unseal Complaint
WILMINGTON, Del. (CN) - Al Jazeera Media Network has five days to file "a largely unredacted copy" of its contract complaint against AT&T, a judge ruled, siding with journalists who challenged the confidential filing.
Al Jazeera filed its original complaint under seal on Aug. 20, 2013, alleging that AT&T wrongfully terminated an affiliation agreement that effectively blocked the company's media debut for AT&T's U-verse subscribers, purportedly serving 5 million TV customers.
A heavily redacted version of Al Jazeera's complaint was released to the public on Aug. 23, with both parties adding its own redactions to the complaint. AT&T and Al Jazeera characterize that redacted information as "proprietary and/or sensitive commercial information" that could harm both companies economically "with respect to competitors and others within the industry."
Judge Sam Glasscock III noted Monday that both AT&T and Al Jazeera redacted significant information in the filed complaint.
Al Jazeera "redacted information such as the nature of the dispute and information about the parties contractual relationship," while AT&T "redacted information related to the parties' negotiations and discussions about the terms of the affiliation agreement, their alleged contractual breaches, and 'quotes and descriptions of key terms of the Affiliation Agreement, including the rights and obligations of the parties (such as payment obligations), pricing, subscribers to the network, and other commercially sensitive provisions,'" the 19-page ruling states.
Several members of the press, including writers from Bloomberg News, Dow Jones and The Associated Press, objected to the redacted filing.
After both AT&T and Al Jazeera filed motions to maintain confidentiality, the Delaware Chancery Court heard oral arguments on Sept. 24, 2013. That hearing was closed to the public and the court transcript is still under seal.
In his letter opinion, Glasscock concluded that both AT&T and Al Jazeera failed to "demonstrate 'good cause' under Chancery Rule 5.1 to maintain the confidentiality of information they characterize as 'sensitive business and financial information.'"
Citing the "critical balance between 'the public's right of access to information about judicial proceedings' and 'the legitimate needs of the litigating parties to have certain information treated confidentially,'" Glasscock found that both AT&T and Al Jazeera's "characterization of sensitive business and financial information fails to take into consideration the public's interest in accessing court documents, and the court's responsibility - as a public forum - to carefully weigh these respective interests."
Both Al Jazeera and AT&T also viewed the material they redacted as "similar to a routinely-redacted price term," but information such as the nature of the dispute "cannot be viewed as analogous to a price term because of the public's significant interest in being able to access this information," the opinion states.
Al Jazeera America's debut on American television has significant public interest, as the objections by journalists to the confidential filing make clear, the judge noted.
They had said that the public has the right to be informed of the "circumstances under which a journalistic enterprise can be denied entry to the American broadcast market by a provider with millions of viewers," Glasscock wrote, quoting their objection.
Glasscock added that, "if information such as the nature of the dispute before this court, negotiations and discussions between the parties, and the parties' contractual dealings, could be redacted merely because its disclosure could cause the parties economic harm, then this court would no longer act as a public court but as something akin to a private arbitrator, replicating an option - private arbitration - that the parties could have, but did not, choose for themselves."
AT&T had also redacted a potentially embarrassing item that Al Jazeera called the telecom's "extra-contractual true motive for termination of the agreement," Glasscock noted.
Since the parties can still appeal to the Delaware Supreme Court, the information will remain closed to the public, according to the ruling.
Al Jazeera America, which is controlled by the Qatari royal family, recently paid $500 million for Current TV to quickly access nearly 43 million households in the United States.
The original filing in Delaware Chancery Court, Al Jazeera LLC v. AT&T Services Inc, CA 8823.