Belgian court rules that killer doctor has "the right to be forgotten"

by Gianna Iacino

On 29 April 2016, the Belgian Court of Cassation decided that a newspaper has to anonymise an article about a deadly car accident in its online archive. The plaintiff is a medical doctor.

Killer Doctor 900X600 A doctor caused a drunk-driving accident that killed two people two decades ago, and the Court ruled that he has the right to have his name deleted from the newspaper's online archives in connection with the crime. (Photo: public domain)

More than 20 years ago, in 1994, the plaintiff caused a car accident due to drunk driving. Two people died in that accident. The plaintiff was convicted and rehabilitated in 2006.

At the time of the conviction in 1994, the Belgium daily newspaper Le Soir published an article about the accident, referring to the doctor by name.

A few years later, in 2008, the newspaper opened a publicly accessible online archive, which included the article about the accident. The plaintiff asked the newspaper to anonymise the article, which the newspaper refused to do.

The doctor then brought an action against the newspaper, and won in the first two instances. The newspaper appealed the decisions, but the Court of Cassation dismissed the appeal.

The Court had to balance the plaintiff’s right to privacy according to art. 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) with the newspaper’s right to freedom of expression according to art. 10 ECHR. The Court noted that the right to freedom of expression entails the right to operate an online archive. It also noted that the right to privacy entails the right to be forgotten: Convicted criminals can have the right that their name no longer be mentioned in connection with the crime they committed.

In the necessary balance of interest, the Court stated that the report about a 20-year-old car accident cannot be considered news. Neither does public interest exist in the identity of the perpetrator, especially because he is not a public figure.

The Court also dismissed the newspaper's argument for the necessity of a comprehensive archive. The obligation to anonymise an article only in the online archive would have no impact on the paper archive of the newspaper. Hence, the Court obliged the newspaper to delete the plaintiff’s name from the article.

Gianna Iacino, LL.M., is a Research Associate at the Institute for European Media Law (EMR), Saarbrücken/Brüssel

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The verdict is available in French language here.