Back

Senator put in prison for criticising the government

Castells v. Spain  | 1992

Senator put in prison for criticising the government

As a Senator, in 1979 I wrote an article entitled “Outrageous Impunity” in Punto y Hora, where I pointed out cases of murders by police or para-police groups that had gone unpunished... [I was given] a sentence of one year in jail for insulting the high institutions of the nation.

Miguel Castells, quoted by El Nacional - © Photo NacióDigital

Background

Miguel Castells was a lawyer and member of the Spanish senate. In 1979 he wrote an article claiming that the authorities had not properly investigated a series of murders, allegedly carried out by extremist right-wing groups. According to Mr Castells, the extremist groups were guaranteed immunity from prosecution, before their crimes were carried out.

Mr Castells was prosecuted for insulting the government. Several times during the prosecution, Mr Castells offered to prove his accusations. However, the Spanish courts ruled that he was not allowed to give such evidence, because under Spanish law a person could be found guilty of insulting the nation’s institutions even if his accusations were true.

Mr Castells was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison, as well as a temporary ban on holding public office or carrying out a profession.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The European court ruled that it is particularly important for citizens to be able to use free speech to hold their government to account. However, under Spanish law at the time, even if a person criticised the government truthfully and in good faith, they could still be convicted of a criminal offence.

Mr Castells could not legally defend himself by showing he had acted in good faith, or by proving that his accusations were true. Convicting him in these circumstances had violated his right to free speech.

Freedom of expression … constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society and one of the basic conditions for its progress.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, April 1992 - © Photo ELNACIONAL

Follow-up

Mr Castells was paid compensation and legal costs.

Following this case and others, in 1993 the Spanish Constitutional Court issued a judgment stating that the case law of the European Court of Human Rights would be directly applicable in Spanish law – notably concerning free speech. Among other things, this meant that truth could be used as a defence in Spanish defamation proceedings, so Spanish courts could not rule in the same way again.

The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers continues to monitor the protection of free speech in Spain.


Related examples

Excessive police operation against journalists leads to reforms to protect media sources

Four Belgian journalists were targeted by the police in a huge search and seizure operation aimed at identifying the source of leaked government information. The Strasbourg court ruled that the operation had been unjustified and disproportionate. The case influenced new legislation to improve protections for journalists and their sources.

Read more

Nurse compensated after being fired for whistleblowing

Brigitte Heinisch was a geriatric nurse. She claimed that practices in the old people’s home where she worked were putting patients at risk. After she made her allegations public, she was fired. Yet, the German courts found that her dismissal was lawful - so Mrs Heinisch took her case to Strasbourg. Her case was then re-opened and she won compensation.

Read more

Legal attack on a newspaper highlights the need for free speech reforms

Before a presidential election, the newspaper The Day published articles criticising two of the candidates. The politicians sued the owners of the newspaper for damages and won. The Strasbourg court found that the owners had been punished merely for publishing opinions, violating their right to free speech. The case influenced reforms to protect freedom of expression in Ukraine.

Read more

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

Retired journalist Veseljko Koprivica was ordered to pay huge damages after losing a defamation case. The Strasbourg court ruled that the damages awarded were so excessive that they violated his right to free speech. A ruling by the Supreme Court of Montenegro specified that damages for defamation should not be high enough to discourage journalists from playing their key role in society.

Read more

Free speech reforms after writer prosecuted for reporting allegations of police brutality

In the early 1980s Thorgeir Thorgeirson wrote articles claiming that there was a problem with police brutality in Reykjavik. His reporting was based on the prosecution of a police officer and various public allegations. Nevertheless, he was convicted for defaming the Reykjavik police. The European court ruled that this had violated his right to freedom of expression, leading to free speech...

Read more

Magazine made to pay damages for criticising politician’s homophobic behaviour

The magazine Mladina published an article criticising a politician for homophobic remarks in a parliamentary debate. The politician sued the magazine because he had been offended by its criticism. The Slovenian courts ruled against the magazine, ordering it to pay damages. The European court ruled this had violated the magazine’s rights – leading to reforms to protect free speech.

Read more

Justice for the victims of Soviet oppression

Klaus and Yuri Kiladze were eleven and nine years old when their father was killed by the Soviet authorities. Their mother was then sent to a gulag, their family apartment was seized and they were taken into abusive State custody. Decades later, a Georgian law was passed establishing a right to compensation for victims of Soviet oppression. Yet the national courts still denied them justice.

Read more

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

In July 2000 Ilnar Gorelishvili wrote an article about a politician who owned various expensive properties. She questioned how he had bought these whilst working in public service on a moderate salary. The politician sued her for defamation and won. The European court ruled that Georgian law had not properly protected Ms Gorelishvili’s right to give her opinion.

Read more

Reforms to protect free speech after journalists sued

Matti Paloaro and Pentti Eerikäinen were journalists. They reported on the prosecution of a businesswoman, who had abused public funds and was later sentenced to prison. The businesswoman sued the journalists, claiming they had invaded her privacy by publicising her prosecution. The businesswoman won in the Finnish courts – but the Strasbourg court ruled in favour of the journalists.

Read more

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

In a report on alleged corruption in Portuguese football, José Manuel Colaço Mestre asked questions to an interviewee about the dual role played by Mr Pinto de Costa, who was then both Chairman of FC Porto and President of the Portuguese Football League. Because of these questions, Mr Colaço Mestre and his employer were both found guilty of criminal defamation in the Portuguese courts.

Read more

Newspaper’s free speech victory leads to reforms

In 1988 the local newspaper Bladet Tromsø published claims by a government inspector alleging misconduct by certain seal hunters. The Norwegian courts found the newspaper liable for defamation, saying that it had relied too heavily on government reports. The Strasbourg court ruled that this violated the paper’s right to free speech – leading to reforms to protect freedom of expression.

Read more

Justice for animal rights campaigners who had pamphlets seized by police

Elina Goussev and Michael Marenk were protesting against the fur trade. Police searched their homes and seized campaign materials. The Strasbourg court ruled that this had breached their right to free speech, as the seizure had not been clearly justified by Finnish law. After the case had been submitted to the court, reforms were made to prevent arbitrary seizures.

Read more

Justice for man who was fined for writing an article

Isaak Grinberg wrote an opinion article criticising a local governor. The governor sued Mr Grinberg for defamation, making him pay a fine. The Strasbourg court ruled that Mr Grinberg had been punished for giving a value judgment about a public figure. This violated his right to free speech. Mr Grinberg was awarded €1,120 in compensation.

Read more

Greater protection for the media after journalist fined for refusing to reveal the identity of his source

Journalist William Goodwin was given leaked information about a company. The company wanted to sue the source of the leak - but Mr Goodwin refused to reveal their identity. The UK courts fined Mr Goodwin 5,000 pounds for contempt of court. The Strasbourg court ruled this had violated his right to receive and give out information.

Read more

Reforms to protect media freedom after a journalist was convicted for a report about extremists

Jens Jersild is a journalist. He was convicted for filming a news report in which extremists made racist remarks. The Strasbourg court found that convicting Mr Jersild for his work was disproportionate and violated his right to free speech. The case helped improve legal protections for media freedom in Denmark.

Read more

Legal challenge brings an end to the state monopoly on TV and radio

During the 1970s and 1980s, various Austrians wanted to set up local TV or radio stations. However, Austrian law banned them from doing so, as it gave the Austrian Broadcasting Company a monopoly. The Strasbourg court ruled that the ban was disproportionate and violated the right to free speech. The judgment led to the opening up of broadcasting regulations.

Read more

Fairer television coverage for small political parties

Small political parties received virtually no television news coverage, and were banned from TV advertising. The Strasbourg court ruled that this left the Pensioner’s Party no way of transmitting its message on TV, violating its right to freedom speech. Reforms were made to political broadcasting rules, requiring the national broadcaster to include smaller parties in its TV coverage.

Read more

Reforms made after pensioner given unreasonable punishments

Sofija Tešić received a monthly pension equivalent to 170 euros. After she lost a defamation case, every month two-thirds of her pension was taken to pay off her debt – leaving her without money to pay for medication. The Strasbourg court ruled that this had been disproportionate. The Serbian courts changed their case law to limit defamation awards, and enforcement proceedings were also...

Read more