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Online media archives – a source of knowledge about the past or a privacy threat?

The digital revolution has changed press archives creating an alternative to paper collections with limited access that gathered dust on library shelves. Nowadays, older publications are easily and widely available online.

For the press, it opens new possibilities of reaching a reader not only with the current news but also archive publications, with no time or geographical limitations. This brings benefits also for media recipients, who now have wider access to information. However, the functioning of press archives poses certain new challenges for the media. One of them is the mounting pressure exerted on publishers to block online archive materials that according to some recipients contain awkward, embarrassing or outdated information about them. On the other hand, these publications often involve issues that still attract the legitimate interest of the society, so requests to block the same are treated by publishers as an attempt at “censoring” the past.

In 2016, the HFHR worked on the project concerning the protection of online media archives. The project involved a survey carried out among editorial teams running news websites and a review of case-law of domestic courts and international tribunals regarding the management of the content collected in online media archives.

In the report summing up the project’s results we provide answers to the following questions:

  • how should look a balanced response of the website’s editorial team to a request for blocking a publication available in an online archive (whether and if so, when it is justified to block archive contents),
  • according to what criteria should such a request be assessed (e.g. the nature of the publication, its purpose, the passing of time) and
  • what alternative, more proportionate ways of archives modification could be applied in such situations.

We invite our readers to read the project’s results. We hope it will be of assistance mostly to editorial teams that receive requests for blocking archive contents, but also to lawyers handling cases involving this issue.

The project was funded by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe – Mission to Serbia.

The full report is available here.

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