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European Court of Human Rights overrules libel decision

(IPI/IFEX) - 29 July 2011 - Slovakian courts violated a publisher's rights to freedom of expression and information when they ordered it to issue a correction and pay compensation over reports of a high-ranking police official's alleged drunken public behaviour, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled.

A seven-judge panel on Tuesday unanimously overruled a decision against Bratislava-based multimedia publishing company Ringier Axel Springer Slovakia, citing a failure to examine whether the reports were written in good faith and in accordance with journalistic ethics.

Concluding that the national courts' decision violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the Strasbourg court also faulted a failure to assess the level of public interest in the articles or to balance that against the individual interests of those concerned.

International Press Institute (IPI) Vice Chairman Pavol Múdry, a member of the board of IPI's Slovakian Committee, said the committee "welcomes the Strasbourg court's decision as a clear expression of guidance for Slovak courts and a great step forward for the stabilization of press freedom in the country."

Former Police Vice President Jozef Petras sued the publisher's predecessor-in-interest for libel over a series of reports in the print and online editions of Slovakian tabloid NOVY CAS describing a 1999 incident at a restaurant involving Petras and Ján Slota, who at the time was a parliamentary deputy, leader of the Slovak National Party leader and mayor of Žilina.

Tipped off by an anonymous telephone call, a reporter went to the restaurant and observed the two men for about 10 minutes before they left. He concluded that they were inebriated and he wrote a series of pieces based on interviews with witnesses who claimed that Slota was extremely drunk and urinated off the restaurant's terrace with Petras' assistance.

The reports also repeated statements that Petras wet his trousers and spoke of organising civic disturbances if Slota would provide protection.

Petras - who was cleared of any impropriety by police investigators and who later left the police force of his own initiative - confirmed that he was at the restaurant with Slota. But he denied the other accounts, and both he and Slota filed suit.

NOVY CAS's publisher, Ringier Axel Springer Slovakia's predecessor-in-interest, pointed in its defence to Article 10, which sets forth the right to freedom of expression, including the "freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers." The article also provides that the exercise of these freedoms carries "duties and responsibilities" and may be subject to certain restrictions.

A Slovakian court presiding over Petras' suit found in his favour, concluding that the publisher had not shown that the information in the reports was truthful. In a decision upheld on appeal, the court noted that the reporter had not actually seen the alleged urination and it ruled that the officer's interest in having his private life respected prevailed over the public's interest in the incident.

The court then granted Petras' request for a correction and an apology, and compensation of 23,000 euros, although that amount was later halved on appeal.

However, the judges in Strasbourg held that although the Slovakian courts made reference to journalists' good faith and the presence of a public interest in the matter, they had failed to take evidence or to make an analysis or draw specific conclusions on those points.

IPI Director Alison Bethel McKenzie joined Múdry in applauding Tuesday's decision.

"We are happy the Strasbourg court has provided guidance not only to Slovakian courts on evaluating and upholding the rights to freedom of expression and information, but to courts in all other signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights," she said. "A robust, free media is vital to democracy, and journalists should not be punished for reporting ethically and in good faith on matters involving public officials."

The Strasbourg court's decision is scheduled to become final in three months unless one of the parties requests - and a five-judge panel grants - a referral to the Grand Chamber of the Court. The case is Ringier Axel Springer Slovakia, a.s. v. Slovakia.

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