I/A Court H.R., Case of Claude Reyes et al. v. Chile. Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of September 19, 2006. Series C No. 151.

Non official brief

 This summary is also published in the website of the Council of Europe in the following link: https://www.venice.coe.int/files/Bulletin/B2007-1-e.pdf

 

Headnotes:

 

The right to freedom of thought and expression protects the right of all individuals to request access to state-held information and obligates the state to provide it.

 

A state must provide a justification when, for any reason permitted by the American Convention on Human Rights, the state restricts access to information in a specific case.

 

A state's actions should be governed by the principles of disclosure and transparency in public administration that enable all persons subject to its jurisdiction to exercise the democratic control of those actions, and so that they can question, investigate and consider whether public functions are being performed adequately.

 

When state-held information is refused, the state must guarantee simple, prompt and effective recourse to determine whether there has been a violation of the right of the person requesting the information, and if applicable, order disclosure of the information.

 

Summary:

 

I. On 8 July 2005, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (hereinafter, the Commission) filed an application against the Republic of Chile to determine whether the State had violated Article 13 ACHR (Freedom of Thought and Expression) and Article 25 ACHR (Right to Judicial Protection) in relation to Article 1 ACHR (Obligation to Respect Rights) and Article 2 ACHR (Domestic Legal Effects) to the detriment of Marcel Claude Reyes, Sebastián Cox Urrejola, and Arturo Longton Guerrero.

 

In May 1998, Marcel Claude Reyes requested certain information concerning a proposed foreign investment project for forestry exploitation from the Foreign Investment Committee (hereinafter, FIC) of the Chilean Government. The project had caused considerable public debate owing to its potential environmental impact. When the FIC did not provide the full information requested, the alleged victims petitioned the Chilean courts to protect their right to information. The Chilean courts dismissed their petition.

 

II. In its judgment of 19 September 2006, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights first considered the standing of each alleged victim. The Court found that only Mr Reyes and Mr Guerrero had directly sought information from the FIC and therefore could maintain a complaint against the State under Article 13 ACHR (Freedom of Thought and Expression). Mr Urrejola joined Mr Reyes and Mr Guerrero in the petition to the Chilean Courts and therefore he could only maintain a complaint under Article 25 ACHR (Right to Judicial Protection). The Court then reviewed three questions: first, whether the State's restriction on petitioners Reyes and Guerrero's freedom to seek information under Article 13 ACHR was lawful; second, whether the administrative decision to refuse to disseminate the information to said petitioners was adopted in accordance with the guarantee of due justification protected under Article 8.1 ACHR; and third, whether the State guaranteed the right to a simple and prompt recourse embodied in Article 25.1 ACHR.

 

First, the Court reviewed the State's decision to reject the petitioners' request for information. The Court analysed permissible restrictions on the freedom of information allowed under Article 13 ACHR, namely, whether the restriction is based in law; whether the restriction corresponds to a purpose allowed in the American Convention; and whether the restriction was necessary in a democratic society. The Court found that, in this case, no law validated the restriction, but instead the decision entailed the complete discretion of public authorities. Further, the State's restriction did not correspond to any rationale found within the American Convention; specifically the restriction did not ensure respect for the rights or reputations of others nor protect national security, public order or public health or morals. Finally, the State failed to prove that such a restriction was necessary in a democratic society when the investment project concerned a debate that was in the public's interest. The Court held that the State had violated the right to freedom of thought and expression under Article 13 ACHR in connection with Articles 1.2 and 2 ACHR to the detriment of petitioners Reyes and Guerrero.

 

Next, the Court found, by iura novit curia, that the State had violated Article 8.1 ACHR (Right to a Fair Trial) in relation to Article 1.1 ACHR to the detriment of petitioners Reyes and Guerrero because the State administrative authority responsible for the information did not adopt a duly justified written decision that provided the reasons and norms for the rejection of the request. Article 8.1 ACHR applies to all procedural instances, whatsoever in nature, to ensure that the individual may defend himself or herself adequately with regard to any act of the State that may affect his or her rights. In this case, the administrative decision to restrict the dissemination of information adversely affected the exercise of the right to freedom of thought and expression.

 

Finally, the Court reviewed the Chilean court's decision to dismiss the petitioners' request for legal protection of their right to seek information. The Court found that the dismissal lacked sufficient justification because it did not explain the reason for its decision nor analyse the administrative decision to restrict access to the information. The Court thus held that the State had violated 25.1 ACHR (Right to Judicial Protection) in relation to Article 1.1 ACHR to the detriment of all the petitioners because it failed to guarantee a simple, prompt and effective recourse to protect their rights to seek information under Article 13 ACHR. The Court also found a violation of Article 8.1 ACHR (Right to a fair trial) in relation to Article 1.1 ACHR to the detriment of all petitioners because the Chilean Court did not duly justify its decision.

 

Consequently, the Court ordered the State, inter alia, to provide the information requested by the victims, if appropriate, or adopt a justified decision for a restriction. More generally, the Court also ordered the State to adopt necessary measures to guarantee the protection of the right of access to State-held information. Such measures must include an effective and appropriate administrative procedure to contemplate and process information requests. Among other forms of reparation, the Court ordered the State to publish the facts and operative paragraphs of its judgment in the Official Gazette and another newspaper of wide circulation and to provide training to public authorities responsible for attending to such information requests. Finally, the State was also ordered to pay costs and expenses.