AZIZ CHOUDRY AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 623

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 1996

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint against The Press newspaper by Aziz Choudry that his right to privacy had been infringed by the unauthorised publication of his home address.

The disclosure to which Mr Choudry objected occurred in an article published on 17 August entitled “The Bungled Break In at Betwin Avenue.” This was conceded by Mr Choudry to be on the whole, well-written. It described him as an intense and committed activist and outlined this activities and spokesman for a group called GATT Watchdog which used the APEC trade ministers’ meeting which began in Christchurch on 14 July, to protest and present their own viewpoint against the operations of the free market.

The article then dealt with a break-in and subsequent events that occurred while Mr Choudry was absent from his home at 6 Betwin Avenue on the evening of 14 July. It told how Dr Donald Small, a friend of Mr Choudry’s, had surprised intruders behind his house and had talked to one of them until a motor-car had driven up and enabled that intruder to escape. Subsequently, following the discovery of a hoax bomb, the police had searched the homes of Mr Choudry and Dr Small. This had led them, the article said, to see a connection between the two events and to believe that the Security Intelligence Service was involved. It said that Mr Choudry and Dr Small would be making further enquiries and observed “the break-in at 6 Betwin Avenue is far from dead yet.” The article thus twice referred to Mr Choudry’s precise address.

These references led him to complain to The Press on 17 August against publication of his address without his consent. He said that when he agreed to talk to a reporter about a possible feature article on the break-in at his house, it had never occurred to him that such an eventuality might arise. The unauthorised publication of his address, he said, breached his right to privacy and, potentially, his security. He said that he had a confidentially-listed telephone number and was not in the directory. He demanded an explanation and an apology for what he saw as a bizarre, unethical and stupid decision.

In a reply on 20 August, the editor of The Press said that he was sorry Mr Choudry had been offended by the publication of his address. But he suggested that it was bizarre that someone who frequently thrust himself into the public limelight should be claiming a breach of privacy. He said that The Press generally did not disclose a person’s full address unless it was relevant to the context of a story; in this case he believed it was relevant since the article centred on an incident at that address. He stressed that Mr Choudry had at no time requested that the reporter not divulge his address and had willingly posed for a photograph of his property with the mailbox and house number in full view. It was only the circumstance that the photograph had been published in black-and-white rather than in colour, as it might have been, that prevented the house number from being clearly visible.

The editor said it would not be difficult for anyone seeking Mr Choudry’s exact address to find it in the Christchurch Residential Roll. And he suggested that, while he did not doubt the worthiness of Mr Choudry’s frequent protests, they were hardly the actions of someone desperately seeking privacy.

In a rejoinder to the Council on 12 September, Mr Choudry described the editor’s response as “petulant and presumptuous,” rejected the contention that his activity as a public spokesman conflicted with his right to privacy, and suggested that The Press could easily have established whether or not he objected to publication of his address.

In the view of the Press Council, it was understandable that the break-in and suspicions of SIS involvement should have increased Mr Choudry’s sensitivity about infringement of his domestic privacy. It noted the steps he had taken, even before the events, to protect his telephone number and its listing. And it gave little weight to the editor’s argument that participation in public protest of itself, impaired the right to privacy.

On the other hand, the Press Council noted that the Residential Roll and other public sources of information on where people lived intruded in absolute privacy. And it felt that Mr Choudry’s complaint was weakened by the freedom he had apparently offered The Press to visit him at his home and to photograph him at the front of his house with the letterbox, the entrance, part of the building and a stretch of the roadway on display. He had not requested that his address not be mentioned. The photograph would have had little point if the article did not state where it was taken and the article itself would have lost significance had it done no more than establish that the incidents occurred somewhere in Christchurch.

The Press Council decided that, wittingly or not, Mr Choudry had compromised his privacy by giving The Press the liberties he did. It did not uphold the complaint.