(CN) - Switzerland violated the rights of journalists it prosecuted for using a hidden camera to document abuses in the insurance brokerage industry, the European Court of Human Rights ruled.
In 2007, a Swiss criminal court convicted journalists Ulrich Haldimann, Hansjorg Utz, Monika Balmer and Fiona Strebel of secretly filming an insurance broker while posing as customers.
The journalists used the footage in a documentary about life insurance products for the Swiss-German TV consumer-protection program "Kassensturz," in the wake of recent public discontent with practices of insurance brokers.
Although the interviewed broker said he suspected he'd been filmed - and a subsequent airing of the documentary disguised his face and voice - the Swiss court slapped Haldimann, Utz and Balmer with fines totaling 15 days' salary and Strebel with a five-day fine.
A high court in Zurich acquitted the four of invasion of privacy using a camera and reduced their fines slightly. But they brought their case before the European Court of Human Rights, claiming their convictions violated their rights to expression since they had made the documentary as a public-interest story detailing poor advice by insurance brokers.
On Feb. 24, a 7-judge panel of the Strasbourg-based court agreed that the public's right to know about the insurance industry outweighed the broker's right to know he was being filmed for a news story.
In an opinion only made available in French, the human rights court noted that the poor advice given by private insurance brokers - and the subsequent inadequate protection of consumer rights - deserved the public exposure that the journalists' report could provide.
Even if the broker being interviewed believed the conversation was private - and evidence indicated he knew something was up - the documentary focused on his industry's practices and not the broker specifically, the court said.
The reporters also deserved the benefit of the doubt when it came to their assertions that they had observed journalistic ethics as defined by Swiss law, particularly given their limited use of the hidden camera in the piece, the court said.
And the human rights charter also affords protection to journalists reporting on issues of public interest when - as here - their reports are "reliable and precise," the court added.
As for the broker, the human rights court held that while his privacy had been invaded to some degree, the fact that his identity was disguised in the report and the interview took place outside his office minimized damage to his reputation.
Although the journalists' punishments were relatively light, their prosecution had a chilling effect on the media and was liable to discourage news outlets from expressing criticism, the court concluded.
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