- 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.
Eleven people were convicted for calling for a boycott of Israeli goods in solidarity with Palestine. According to the European court, the French courts had not established why these criminal convictions were “necessary in a democratic society”. The European court’s judgment led to the cancellation of the protestors’ convictions and greater freedom to support boycotts for political reasons.
The European court found that Romania’s chief anti-corruption prosecutor had had no way to legally challenge her dismissal. Also, the government’s decision to dismiss her had violated her free speech because it was mostly in response to her public criticism of controversial legal reforms. Romania then changed the law to protect prosecutors from abusive removal from office.
Liechtenstein’s prince said he would bar Herbert Wille from holding public office because of opinions the legal expert had expressed. The European court ruled that this violated Dr Wille’s free speech. Liechtenstein responded by making sure that individuals can make complaints in their own country about alleged violations of the ECHR, including against the prince himself.
Independent TV channel A1+ was taken off the air after a regulator denied its parent company’s bid for a broadcasting licence. The European court ruled that Armenia had breached the company’s freedom of expression because the regulator gave no reasons for its decisions. Armenia then changed the law to bring the licensing procedure into line with the European Convention on Human Rights.
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 European 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 the European Court of Human Rights in 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 broadcasting frequency. The company complained to the European 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 Zoran was fined more than eight average monthly salaries. The European court ruled that this had been unreasonable, violating Zoran'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 European 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 European 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 police. The European court ruled that this had violated his right to freedom of expression, leading to free speech reforms.
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 Ilnar'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 European 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, José Manuel 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 European 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 European 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 him for defamation, making him pay a fine. The European court ruled that Isaak had been punished for giving a value judgment about a public figure. This violated his right to free speech. Isaak 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 William refused to reveal their identity. The UK courts fined him £5,000 for contempt of court. The European court ruled this had violated William's 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 European court found that convicting Jens 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 European 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 European 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 Björk for defamation and won. The European 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 European court ruled that this left the Pensioner’s Party with no way of transmitting its message on TV, violating its right to free 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, two-thirds of her monthly pension was taken to pay off her debt – leaving her without money for medication. The European court ruled that this had been disproportionate. The Serbian courts changed their case law to limit defamation awards, and enforcement proceedings were also overhauled.
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. Hervé was convicted and given a suspended fine. The European court ruled that this had breached Hervé'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:
Access to Internet PDF (204 Ko)
Hate speech PDF (494 Ko)
Protection of journalistic sources PDF (220 Ko)
Protection of reputation PDF (560 Ko)