By Roger Parloff
July 13, 2007

A few hours ago, in an important clash between press freedoms and individual privacy rights, a British judge turned down an attempt by the son of the president of Republic of Congo to force the human rights group Global Witness to stop posting his private financial records on his its website.

Global Witness contends that the documents show that Denis Christel Sassou-Nguesso, who heads the marketing arm of Congo’s state-owned oil company, Société Nationale des Pétroles du Congo (SNPC), may be supporting his lavish lifestyle with national oil revenue that properly belongs to the destitute people of Congo. Since Sassou-Nguesso is invoking privacy law rather than libel law, truth is not a defense available to Global Witness.

Nevertheless, the court ruled in favor of Global Witness this morning, presumably finding that the great public interest in the documents outweighed Sassou-Nguesso’s privacy rights in this instance. The judge, Justice Stanley Burnton of the High Court of Justice in London, told the lawyers he’d issue a written ruling explaining his decision on Monday afternoon, according to a spokesperson and attorney for Global Witness. An attorney for Sasso-Nguesso said he was not authorized by his client to comment in any way.

Not coincidentally, Sassou-Nguesso is represented by the U.K. law firm Schillings, which is better known for having represented such plaintiffs as Naomi Campbell, Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, and Britney Spears. Schillings is probably the U.K.’s leading firm specializing in protecting celebrities against the depredations of paparazzi and tabloid journalists. It has been quite successful in recent years, both because of good lawyering and increasingly strong privacy laws in England and Europe.

But those same privacy rights can be turned against non-tabloid papers and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which is what is happening here. On July 6, Sassou-Nguesso successfully obtained an order from a Hong Kong court demanding that Global Witness take down its documents, and, since Monday, his solicitors at Schillings have been trying to enforce that judgment in Britain, where Global Witness is headquartered.

Thanks to this morning’s ruling, all the pertinent documents are still available on Global Witness’s website, which is available here. They include a press release, the financial records in question (credit card bills, bank records, bills of lading), and a July 6 letter from Schillings — marked “urgent,” “off the record,” and “not for publication” — demanding that everything be taken down.

In its press release, Global Witness writes: “While 70% of Congolese citizens earn less than a dollar a day in August 2006 alone Denis Christel Sassou-Nguesso . . . spent $35,000 on purchases from designers such as Louis Vuitton and Roberto Cavalli.”

The group contends that Sassou-Nguesso and his deputy at SPNC have been paying their lavish credit card bills with funds from companies they have set up in “the tax haven of Anguilla,” and that those entities have, in turn, “received, via other shell companies, money related to Congo’s oil sales.”

Sasso-Nguesso’s route to court has been paved by a series of celebrity privacy suits whose outcomes would be almost unimaginable in the United States. In 2004, for instance, the model Naomi Campbell (represented by Schillings) won a privacy judgment in the British House of Lords against the Mirror newspaper, which had exposed the fact that she was undergoing drug rehabilitation. While reporting that fact alone would have been within the law, the court said that, because Campbell’s previous public denials of drug use had opened the door to disproving them, the newspaper essentially crossed the line when it went on to publish photos of Campbell leaving the Narcotics Anonymous facility and details about how often she went, and for how long she’d been going. (For the Campbell ruling, click here.)

Just a month later, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled for Princess Caroline of Monaco in another case puzzling to most Americans. She had been surreptitiously photographed in France while shopping and on vacation, and the photos had then been published in a German magazine. “The court considers that the public does not have a legitimate interest in knowing where [Princess Caroline] is and how she behaves generally in her private life,” the court wrote, “even if she appears in places that cannot always be described as secluded and despite the fact that she is well known to the public.” (Obtained from the IPKat blog, available here.)

More recently, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones also won an award for invasion of privacy in the British House of Lords against Britain’s Hello! magazine, which had managed to sneak a photographer in to snap pictures of their wedding at the Plaza Hotel in New York. The couple had not compromised their right to privacy, the court held, even though they had not really tried to keep the wedding free of all photographers, but had simply sold the exclusive rights to photograph it to a different British magazine, called Okay!, for £1 million. The court also ruled that Okay! was entitled to win a £1 million judgment from Hello! for having violated the Douglases’ privacy rights and interfered with Okay!’s contract rights. (For the Douglas ruling, click here.)

On the other hand, there is apparently some law going in the other direction as well, I’m informed by American lawyer David Korzenik, who has done work for Global Witness in the past. He points to a 1999 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which ruled in favor of two journalists with the French satirical magazine Le Canard enchaîné, who had been prosecuted criminally in France for publishing embarrassing financial records of Jacques Calvet, the then chairman of Peugeot. (During a period of labor unrest at the company, the documents suggested that his compensation had risen 45.9% during a period when the average worker’s salary at the company had risen 6.7%.)

However, as I understand it — and I don’t really understand it yet — the ECHR does not have the power truly to overrule national courts and its precedents are not rigidly binding on them. Instead, if it finds that a signatory nation’s courts have reached a ruling inconsistent with the European Convention on Human Rights, it then orders the signatory state to reimburse the private party who lost in that state’s courts.

Notwithstanding its name, the High Court of Justice is analogous to the New York State Supreme Court which, notwithstanding its name, is a relatively low-level court of first instance — i.e., the place you start a lawsuit, not the place you end it. So Sassou-Nguesso may choose to appeal its ruling, possibly all the way to the British House of Lords.

UPDATE (7-16-07): I’m now told that Justice Burnton’s written opinion will not be issued Monday (today), and may take a few more days.

UPDATE (7-26-07):  A Global Witness spokesperson informs me that Justice Burnton issued his written ruling this morning, and she has seen it, but it remains confidential for the time being because Sassou-Nguesso intends to appeal it.

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