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Greater protections for free speech after journalist sued for reporting on alleged political corruption

Gorelishvili v. Georgia  | 2007

Greater protections for free speech after journalist sued for reporting on alleged political corruption

... the court reiterates that the press fulfills an essential function in a democratic society. Although it must not overstep certain bounds, particularly as regards the reputation and rights of others, its duty is nevertheless to impart – in a manner consistent with its obligations and responsibilities – information and ideas on all matters of public interest.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, June 2007

Background

Ilnar Gorelishvili wrote a regular column for a newspaper, aiming to expose corruption in public service. One article, published in July 2000, concerned a politician with close links to the government and his ownership of several properties. It included a picture of his summer house, which was described as “a palace”. Ms Gorelishvili compared the value of the properties to the politician’s salary, questioned how he could have acquired so many assets in public service alone, and suggested that it may have come from political corruption.

The politician sued Ms Gorelishvili and her editor for defamation. The Georgian courts ruled in favour of the politician. It ordered the journalists to pay damages and publish a correction.

Ms Gorelishvili took her case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The European court ruled that the Ms Gorelishvili’s right to free speech had been violated.

Georgian defamation law at the time had not distinguished between facts and opinions. The facts which had been presented in the article were that the politician had owned the property. This had been based on his public declaration of ownership, and was not in dispute.

The suggestion that the property had come from political corruption had not been presented as a fact. It had been raised as a possible opinion. Given the circumstances of the case, the opinion had not been unreasonable. However, the requirement by the Georgian courts for Ms Gorelishvili to prove the truth of this opinion had interfered with her right to free speech. It had not been justified in the circumstances.

Follow-up

After the events took place, a new law on the media was passed in Georgia in 2004. This contained various legal protections for free speech, designed to be in line with the European Convention on Human Rights. In particular, the law made a distinction between facts and opinions. People may be made responsible for publishing facts which are false and harmful. However, the law gives people absolute freedom of opinion.

The European court’s judgment in this case was translated into Georgian and distributed to various state bodies, including the Supreme Court. A subsequent judgment by the Supreme Court in 2009 again stressed the need to apply the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights and the European court’s case law to cases involving free speech.