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Journalist convicted for asking questions wins free speech case at European court

Colaço Mestre and SIC v. Portugal  | 2007

Journalist convicted for asking questions wins free speech case at European court

I was shocked to have been convicted.

José Manuel Colaço Mestre, quoted by Publico

Background

José Manuel Colaço Mestre filmed a report for the TV station SCI about the alleged bribery of Portuguese football referees. The report included an interview, in which the actions of the Chairman of FC Porto and the then President of the Portuguese Football League, Mr Pinto de Costa, were discussed. Mr Colaço Mestre questioned his interviewee about Mr Pinto de Costa’s dual role, asking whether there was a problem with him being in charge of one of the country’s largest football clubs whilst also being “the referees’ boss”.

This was enough for Mr Pinto de Costa to press charges for criminal defamation.

Mr Colaço Mestre and SCI were both found guilty of defamation, solely on the basis of the questions asked in the interview. They were both made to pay damages to Mr Pinto de Costa. Mr Colaço Mestre was made to pay an additional fine or face three months’ imprisonment.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The European court ruled that nothing said in the interview had breached journalistic ethics. The interview had been about the actions of a public figure in an area of great public concern. There had not been good enough reasons to impose such heavy punishments.

The conviction of Mr Colaço Mestre and SCI had therefore violated their right to free speech.

The court recalls that, according to its well established case law, freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society, and is one of the basic conditions for its progress and each individual’s self-fulfillment.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, April 2007

Follow-up

Intensive training about the protection of free speech under the European Convention on Human Rights was organised for the most senior members of the Portuguese justice system. Participants included the Minister of Justice, the Director for the Centre of Judicial Studies and over two hundred judges.  

Mr Colaço Mestre successfully asked to have his criminal conviction revised, so that he was acquitted. Both he and SCI were paid compensation.