Reference: Application No. 72683/01
Court: European Court of Human Rights
Judge: Rozakis (President), Loucaides, Vajic, Kovler, Steiner, Hajiyev & Spielmann
Date of judgment: 31 Oct 2007
Summary: Article 10 - Freedom of expression - Defamation - Political criticism - Value judgments - Whether 'necessary in a democratic society'
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C wrote an article which was published in the Kurskiy Vestnik newspaper which gave an account of the missappropriation of budgetary funds allocated for the purchase of furniture and renovations. It stated that a normal governor in such a sitution might have been horrified and fired those responsible but that Governor Rutskoy’s reaction was to recommend to his aides that they cover up the discrepancy and concluded, “I do not know what others might think, but my view is as follows: a governor who gives such advice is abnormal. Let me clarify, lest I face judicial proceedings: I am talking about the conduct of a [State] official, not Mr Rutskoy’s personality, which is none of my business”. Mr Rutskoy lodged a civil action for defamation. The District Court and the Regional Court both found that the statement that Mr Rutskoy was ‘abnormal’ related to the Governor and not simply to his conduct and that it was expressed in an insulting manner.
Whether the interference with C’s Article 10 rights was justified within the meaning of Article 10(2).
It was common ground that the judgments given in the defamation action constituted an interference with C’s freedom of expression. However, the inference was not ‘necessary in a democratic society’ and there had accordingly been a breach of Article 10. C was a journalist and journalistic freedom covers possible recourse to a degree of exaggeration. Mr Rutskoy was a professional politician in respect of whom the limits of acceptable criticism are wider than in the case of a private individual. In these circumstances he should have displayeed a greater tolorance to criticial publications. The subject of the article could be considered part of a political debate on a matter of general and public concern. The opinion of C that the Governor was ‘abnormal’ was a value judgment based on solid and sufficient factual basis and should have been understood in the the sense given to it, and fully explained in the article, by C.
Given the facts of this case, it was not surprising that the Court found a breach of Article 10. The relatively small final award of damages and the proceedings being civil rather than criminal were matters relied upon by the respondent, but it was found that this did not detract from the fact that the domestic courts had failed to acceptably assess the relevant facts. The Court made it clear that although national authorities are given a ‘margin of appreciation’, it is not unlimited and goes hand in hand with a European supervision by the Court.