Reference: Application No. 15601/02
Court: European Court of Human Rights
Judge: Bratza (President), Garlicki, Bonello, Pavlovschi, Mijoviæ, Šikuta, and Hirvelä (Judges)
Date of judgment: 18 Mar 2008
Summary: Human rights - Freedom of expression - Article 10, European Convention on Human Rights - Defamation - Publication of interview - Politician - Matter of public interest - Fact/value judgment dichotomy
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K owned a company which published a magazine which published an interview with a lawyer who had acted for a couple charged with the kidnapping of the daughter of the Deputy Speaker of the Sejm. The couple’s account was that the daughter had run away with their son, her boyfriend, and that she had run away many times before. The Regional Prosecutor found the allegation of kidnapping to be groundless and the proceedings were discontinued. In the interview as published in K’s magazine, the lawyer said that the Deputy Speaker had “obviously abused power”, “caused unlawfulness” in connection with the criminal investigation, lied to the media, did not understand or love his daughter and should “undergo psychiatric and psychological examination.” The Deputy Speaker and his family brought claims for defamation against K and were successful before the Regional Court, and on appeal both the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. K was ordered to publish an apology and to pay costs and compensation.
Whether the admitted interference with K’s right to freedom of expression was necessary in a democratic society or whether it violated his rights under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Finding a violation of Article 10:
The exceptional context of the case was of crucial importance as the conflict in DS’s family lay at the heart of the case. While in general issues concerning relations between parents and children belong to the sphere of private and family life, the manner in which DS handled his family circumstances made the case of public interest. He himself ‘mediatised’ the case. Issues relating to DS’s family life were therefore closely linked to his standing as a politician and contributed to a public debate. Some of the statements were value judgments on a matter of public interest: the domestic courts apparently acknowledged this, as they considered that calling DS a liar was an “evaluation” that could not be verifiable. The applicant was found to have infringed DS’s personal rights by publishing, in an interview, the statements made by another person: particularly strong reasons are required for restricting the freedom of the press in such circumstances.
It is well-established in Article 10 case-law that the limits of acceptable criticism are wider as regards politicians. This decision makes clear that such criticism can extend to the politician’s private life, at least where the politician himself has brought private issues into the public domain. It also re-affirms the Strasbourg Court’s position that particularly strong reasons are required to penalise journalists for publishing the words of others on matters of public interest, a principle in respect of which English law might well be deemed non-compliant.