21 April 2011

Information v Defamation: ECtHR Rules Against Bulgaria

Europe zone, Strasbourgphoto © 2008 Stephen Colebourne | more info (via: Wylio)

As early as 1992 Bulgaria acceded to the Council of Europe.  The accession meant not only the acceptance of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), but also Bulgaria’s submission to the jurisdiction of the European Court on Human Rights (ECtHR), the authority serving as the last resort against violations of the rights protected by the ECHR.
Since its accession, Bulgaria has been found liable for violating human rights in a large number of cases. As of yesterday the number of cases rose by two more (courtesy to Dr Lehofer for sharing this information).

In its very recent judgments in Kasabova v Bulgaria (application no. 22385/03) and Bozhkov v Bulgaria (application no. 3316/04) the ECtHR found that Bulgaria had violated Article 10 (freedom of expression and information) of the ECHR.

The Facts

The cases concerned the complaints of two journalists. They had reported on alleged bribes in the admission procedure to specialised secondary schools in the city of Burgas. As a consequence, the journalists were found liable for defamation and were made to pay huge sums in compensation for their statements made in articles published in the Bulgarian press and directed against four administrative experts involved in said admissions.

As you can see, the cases are driven by the conflict between two fundamental human rights: the  right to freedom of expression (and to inform the public) of the journalists literally clashes with the  right to privacy and reputation of the four  experts.
In its

Judgments

the ECtHR had to strike a (fair) balance between these fundamental human rights.

While the ECtHR acknowledged that the allegations made by Kasabova and Bozhkov had been difficult, if not impossible to prove and that, their journalistic research had shown some flaws, it nevertheless held that the sanctions imposed on the journalists had been excessive, disproportionate when compared to the damaged reputation of the four experts and had thus had huge potential chilling effect. Consequently, there has been a violation of Article 10 ECHR.

In the outcome, the Court found that

Freedom Of Expression Outweighed Privacy

A shock to the system for the Bulgarian media sector. Why?

Well, the majority of the Bulgarian media is considered largely tabloidized and owned by anonymous proprietors. This often results in publications that are clearly false and even defamatory.

Even though the Criminal Code penalizes defamation, so far only very few authors of defamatory materials or owners of publicizing media have been successfully charged, convicted and sentenced.
Kasabova and Bozhkov seem to be among those few.
Should this ruling of the ECtHR be interpreted as a carte blanche to journalists writing defamatory materials? I hope not!

On the other hand, it is an open secret that many Bulgarian journalists work under threat or undue influence. For instance, Freedom House designates Bulgaria as merely partly free in terms of press and media in their 2010 report (select country).

No doubt, threatened journalists would clearly benefit from above judgments.

All in all I would agree with the ECtHR since it does not say that journalists should not be punished, if they write defamatory materials. It says that the punishment should not be excessive and disproportionate to the damage the defamation has caused.

What do you think?

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