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Dutch royals win privacy case against AP

A court ruled Friday that The Associated Press violated the privacy of the Dutch royal family by photographing them on a skiing holiday in Argentina.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A court ruled Friday that The Associated Press violated the privacy of the Dutch royal family by photographing them on a skiing holiday in Argentina.

The judge handed down an injunction against further distribution or sale of four images of Crown Prince Willem-Alexander's family that were made available worldwide last month and widely used by the Dutch media.

The AP expressed disappointment, and said the decision would unduly restrict news gathering globally and lead to the suppression of information about which the public had a right to know.

AP said it would "review this ruling with its counsel and evaluate appropriate next steps."

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders denounced the decision, saying it could be cited in lawsuits by presidents and monarchs elsewhere against any media "that dare to use photos that have not been cleared by their public relations departments."

Judge Sjoukje Rullmann said her ruling applied only to the four photos in the case. She rejected the royals' request for an injunction covering all such photographs in the future, saying each case must be separately judged for its news value or contribution to the public interest.

"Award of this broad prohibition would constitute too big a restriction of the freedom of expression of AP," she ruled.

The case has been watched closely by the Dutch media, which is bound by a 2005 "media code," enforced by the government, to leave the royals alone except during organized "media moments" or official functions.

The court ruled that the code "cannot be regarded as a binding agreement," but the royal family nonetheless had the same right to privacy as anyone else.

The royal house has won several previous privacy cases, mainly involving Dutch gossip magazines. But it was the first time the monarchy had taken an international news agency to court for invading the privacy of royals while they were outside their own country.

The royals dropped charges against the Dutch newspapers and Web sites that published the AP photos after those publications reaffirmed their agreement to abide by the code in the future.

In a hearing two weeks ago, the AP argued the royal family were public personalities who were photographed in a public place in accordance with the law. AP's lawyers argued the news agency does not directly publish its material, and publication is always the decision of its subscribers and clients.

Rullmann ruled that under Dutch law freedom of speech had to be weighed against the right to privacy, as measured by the news value of the photographs. Under the law, exceptions to privacy rules are valid if they contribute to a legitimate public debate or have social value.

"The four photos that are central in this case were taken during a private vacation of the plaintiffs and show them during private activities," she ruled.

"The conclusion is that the right to respect the personal sphere weighs more heavily than the right to freedom of expression in publishing these four photos," the ruling said.

In its response, the AP said it believed the decision "failed to give due weight to the importance of freedom of information in a democratic society, particularly with respect to the public actions of public officials and public figures."

In a statement from its New York headquarters, AP said the ruling "would have the unfortunate effect of unduly restraining the exercise of freedom of information globally, and seeks to create a real risk that the public might be kept in the dark in relation to activities about which it has a right to know.

"The decision also seeks to impose an undue and unprecedented burden on a global news operation like the Associated Press and fails to recognize that individual publishers make the actual and final determination whether publication of particular information is justified within any given jurisdiction," it said.

At the Aug. 14 hearing, Willem-Alexander's lawyer read a letter from the prince saying he wanted to protect his daughters from the unpleasant experiences he had as a child.

He said he could never enjoy sailing on his grandfather's yacht. "You never knew when a telephoto lens was spying on you," the letter said.

The judge said it was legitimate to report that the royal family was on a ski holiday, but "photos have a much more intrusive nature than written text."

Although the AP had argued that the photographs did not violate the law in Argentina, where they were taken, Rullmann said Dutch law applied in this case because the damage was incurred in the Netherlands.

The judge awarded court costs to the plaintiffs and ordered the AP to pay euro1,000 ($1,435) for each further publication of the images, up to a maximum of euro50,000 ($71,800).

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AP correspondent Toby Sterling contributed to this report.