- Freedom of expression is crucial to democracy. It means that everyone can take part in political discussions, and the media can hold those who are in power to account.
- A free, independent and diverse media plays the role of a “public watchdog”, keeping people informed and holding power to account.
- Many journalists, media outlets and individuals have used the European Convention on Human Rights to fight for free speech.
McDonald’s brought a successful libel case against two environmental activists, Helen Steel and David Morris, who could not afford a lawyer at the time of the trial. The European court found that the UK’s refusal to grant legal aid to Helen and David caused a breach of their rights. The UK now allows legal aid to be granted, in exceptional circumstances, in defamation cases.
Zoran Šabanović was given a suspended prison sentence for defamation over claims he made related to water contamination. The European court found that Zoran’s conviction breached his right to free speech. Montenegro then decriminalised defamation and Zoran was acquitted after a re-trial.
A Maltese court fined Michael Falzon after a prominent politician accused him of defamation because of an article he wrote. The European court ruled that Michael’s criticism of the politician was legitimate and in the public interest. This breach of his right to free speech led Malta to change its laws on libel and slander.
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.
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.
Italian television was dominated by a small number of channels, with little diversity of ownership. When Centro Europa 7 tried to set up new channels, they were refused access to a broadcast frequency. The company complained to the Strasbourg court that the authorities were maintaining the concentration of media power in Italy. The case led to new rules for protecting media pluralism.
Zoran Lepojić wrote an article saying that a mayor had wasted public money. The mayor successfully brought defamation charges, and Mr Lepojić was fined more than 8 average monthly salaries. The Strasbourg court ruled that this had been unreasonable, violating Mr Lepojić’s right to free speech. The Supreme Court of Serbia took steps to protect freedom of expression in such circumstances.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
Senator Miguel Castells wrote an article claiming that the government was failing to investigate a series of murders. He was convicted of insulting the government and sentenced to a year in prison. The European court ruled that his right to free speech had been violated. The Spanish Constitutional Court then developed its case law to provide greater protection to free speech in Spain.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ionel Dălban was a Romanian journalist and ran a local weekly magazine, Cronica Romaşcană. He was convicted and given a prison sentence for writing about an alleged fraud by public figures. The Strasbourg court ruled that the conviction had violated his right to freedom of expression. The case triggered reforms to free speech protections in Romania.
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.
Björk Eidsdottir is a journalist who claimed that the owner of a strip club was making his staff work as prostitutes. The issue was a matter of public interest, and her article was published in good faith and with due diligence. Nevertheless, the club owner sued Ms Eidsdottir for defamation and won. The Strasbourg court held that this had breached the journalist’s right to free speech.
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.
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...
Hervé Eon waved a satirical sign at President Sarkozy. He was then charged with offending the President of France, a crime dating from the 19th Century. Mr Eon was convicted and given a suspended fine. The Strasbourg court ruled that this had breached Mr Eon’s right to free speech. The offence of insulting the President of France was abolished later that year.
Factsheets on the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights:
Protection of journalistic sources PDF (220 Ko)
Protection of reputation PDF (560 Ko)