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Justice for magazine editor ordered to pay huge damages – and new rules to protect free speech

Koprivica v. Montenegro  | 2011

Justice for magazine editor ordered to pay huge damages – and new rules to protect free speech

The judgment of the European Court for me is a moral satisfaction, but also an encouragement for free journalists.

Veseljko Koprivica, quoted by tacno.net

Background

Veseljko Koprivica used to be the editor-in-chief of Liberal, a weekly magazine. In 1994 the magazine published an article written by a special correspondent, which made allegations against certain people.  

Mr Koprivica had relied on the reporting of his special correspondent. However, it turned out that the allegations were mistaken. One of the people involved sued Mr Koprivica for defamation. The Montenegrin courts found against Mr Koprivica and ordered him and the founder of Liberal to pay compensation roughly 25 times greater than Mr Koprivica’s pension.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The court ruled that, in order to protect freedom of expression, the amount of damages awarded in defamation cases must be proportionate to the injury suffered.

Though Mr Koprivica’s conviction may have been justified, the disproportionate damages awarded had violated his right to free speech.

In particular, the court finds that the damages and costs awarded were very substantial when compared to the applicant’s income at the time, being roughly twenty-five times greater than the applicant’s pension

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, November 2011 - © Photo Veseljko Koprivica

Follow-up

After these events, the Supreme Court of Montenegro adopted a binding opinion in 2011 on European standards concerning freedom of expression. This specified that damages awarded in defamation proceedings against journalists  should be in line with the European court’s case law, and should not be high enough to discourage journalists from doing their work in support of democracy. This legal opinion is binding for all courts in Montenegro.

The defamation judgment against Mr Koprivica was overturned. The case against him was reopened and the claim was ultimately withdrawn.


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