The court’s judgment, released on Tuesday, vindicated the investigative journalists from Kassensturz, a weekly consumer affairs programme on the German-language public broadcaster SRF.
The case dates back to February 2003 when one of the journalists, posing as a customer, met with an insurance broker, while the interview was filmed with two hidden cameras.
After the interview ended the broker was informed he had been filmed but he refused to comment afterward when asked by the journalists.
Sequences from the recording were later broadcast on the Kassensturz programme on March 25th 2003, with the broker’s face and voice disguised.
In November 2007, the journalists, including the editor of the programme, were convicted of having made a recording using hidden cameras.
They were each fined different amounts.
The journalists appealed to Switzerland’s supreme court, which ruled that the journalists could have used a different approach, less damaging to the broker’s private interests, in order to secure information in the public interest about practices in the insurance field.
The cantonal supreme court of Zurich in February 2009 acquitted the defendants of violating the secret or private domain by using film cameras and their fines were reduced slightly.
But the journalists, arguing that the fines they received amounted to a “disproportionate interference in their right to freedom of expression”, took the case to the Strasbourg-based human rights court.
The court ruled that the interference in the private life of the broker, who turned down an opportunity to express his views on the interview in question, were “not serious enough to override the public interest in information on malpractice in the field of insurance brokerage”.
The court noted that the veracity of the facts presented by the journalists had never been contested.
It observed that the subject of the documentary produced by the team, the low-quality advice offered by private insurance brokers — and the resulting inadequate protection of consumers’ rights was part of an interesting public debate.
The court said that while the broker might have believed the interview was private, the documentary had not focused on him personally but on “ specific commercial practices used within a particular professional category”.
It concluded that decisions against the journalists violated article ten of the European Convention on Human Rights, which spells out the right to freedom of expression and information, subject to certain restrictions.
For more on the judgment, click here.