Does a public figure have a right to a private life?

Various reports carried by the media have often posed a question that elicits different reactions. Does a popular figure, a so-called public figure, have a right to privacy for themselves and their families?

Recent reports about politicians, politicians’ relatives, businessmen and well-known figures in Malta have created controversy. Examples of reported stories include a vehicle collision, an accidental case of overdose, and a three-month jail sentence on drug trafficking going back eight years. Many questioned the need for such stories to be reported in such a way as to emphasise who the person is, their line of business or their relationship to others, Should the private lives of public figures be laid bare in this manner?

We spoke with lawyer Kevin Dingli, who drew a distinction between ethics and law. Dr Dingli explained that the profession of a journalist is regulated by a code of journalistic ethics that guides journalists on how to report various stories and news items. The same code, however, includes a number of exceptions. Dr Dingli stated that in his opinion, a journalist should not refer to the private life of a public person as long as what is being reported is not directly linked to the person’s profession. “When one is part of the public scene, it starts becoming more difficult to make a  clear distinction between public and private life. However, everyone has a right to private life, and this has to be respected as long as it is not in the public interest to investigate certain issues because these issues have a direct link with the functions or duties of the same public person.”

Dr Dingli added that at present there is no law that enforces the right to a person’s privacy. Asked by the presenter whether the sense of immediacy in today’s world is affecting this type of reporting, Dr Dingli explained that one expects speed in actual media, but this carries certain responsibilities. The voice of the same media, however, is essential in indirectly reducing the possibility of abuses by public persons.

Asked whether the right of expression is being breached if limitations are placed on journalists, Dr Dingli reiterated that “every right has its limitations. It is true that a fundamental right of expression exists, but this is not absolute. There are always boundaries, one of which is private life.”