Amnesty fails to lift ban on radio adverts

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The High Court yesterday upheld a ban on the human rights pressure group Amnesty International advertising on radio.

In a decision which is likely to hit many other campaigning groups, two judges ruled that broadcasting regulators were entitled to conclude that the organisation's objectives were "mainly political" and that it should be denied access to the United Kingdom's commercial airwaves.

David Bull, director of Amnesty's British section (AIBS), said television as well as radio could now become a "no go" area for its commercials and it was planning to appeal, if necessary taking its case to the European Court of Human Rights.

AIBS had argued that the veto imposed by the Radio Authority last October under its advertising code and the 1990 Broadcasting Act was an unacceptable, "irrational" interference with freedom of speech.

Nigel Pleming QC, for Amnesty, said it was not a political body and "no sensible reason" had been advanced as to why it should not be able to advertise on radio, as it already did in national newspapers.

But Lord Justice Kennedy, sitting with Mr Justice McCullough, said: "In addition to freedom of communication there are other rights to be protected, such as freedom from being virtually forced to listen to unsolicited information of a contentious kind

A balance had to be struck, and this - provided it acted reasonably - was a matter of discretion for the Radio Authority and not the courts. The judge also said the listening public had to be protected against the danger of the wealthy buying access to the media and "distorting the democratic process".

The initial decision not to allow Amnesty to launch a national radio advertising campaign about atrocities in Rwanda was made in May last year, with a final decision in October. The campaign, urging listeners to "break the silence" about human rights abuses, featured the actor John Hurt.

The judge said the fact that AIBS pursued its objectives "with impartiality as between political regimes or groupings or parties" was not to the point. The 1990 Broadcasting Act stated that commercial radio stations must not include advertisements inserted by or on behalf of any body whose objects were "wholly or mainly of a political nature".

The court also rejected the AIBS claim that the ban contravened Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. which deals with freedom of speech.The judges, while recognising it was "an important case", refused AIBS leave to appeal, which means it must now ask the Court of Appeal directly to hear its challenge.