Could a Hungarian TV broadcaster rely on a confidentiality clause to dismiss a journalist who had made allegations of censorship?
No it couldn’t, without infringing the journalist’s right to freedom of expression, said the European Court of Human Rights in the recent case of Matuz v. Hungary.
Everyone has the right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In this case, the journalist in question, Mr Matuz, had a specific obligation in his contract not to disclose any confidential information he acquired in connection with his position. In breach of this obligation, he published a book complaining that the content of a television programme had been censored by the Cultural Director of the Hungarian Government.
He was duly dismissed for breaching his confidentiality obligations, and brought a claim that this interfered with his right to freedom of expression, and that this interference was not justified or necessary (in which case the broadcaster could escape liability).
The European Court of Human Rights applied previous case law, which said that the rights of the employee needed to be balanced with the rights of the employer in cases like these. In this case, it was relevant that obligations of confidentiality must be weaker for journalists, because journalists have a duty to reveal information. It was also relevant that the employer had a public remit, and that the disclosure was not motivated by any personal grievance or antagonism.
Accordingly, the Court held that the interference with his right to freedom of expression was not necessary or justified, and Mr Matuz won the case.
This case is an important reminder that employers cannot always rely on the confidentiality clause in their contract of employment, and that care should be taken wherever there is a ‘whistleblowing’ element.
Aside from novel arguments like the one in this case, in English law, contract clauses which prevent ‘whistle blowing’ are void. Furthermore, information cannot be confidential when it relates to the disclosure of wrongdoing, or where it is already in the public knowledge.