Bosnia/Herzegovina: no breach of press freedom if you don’t check your facts

Robin Zeiger

In its judgment of 13 October 2015 (Application no. 17224/11), the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) held, by four votes to three, that there had been no violation of the freedom of expression according to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).


In May 2003, the applicants, all Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), wrote a letter to the highest authorities of the Brčko District of Bosnia and Herzegovina to complain about the alleged misconduct of an entertainment editor of their district’s public radio station. They wrote that they had received information, which allowed the conclusion that the entertainment editor had been involved in disparaging behaviour towards Bosniaks and that this disqualified her from the election to become the radio station’s next director. Soon after, the letter was published in three different daily newspapers. As a result, the entertainment editor brought civil defamation proceedings against the NGOs. At the first instance the claim was rejected. The Court stated that the NGOs could not be held liable for the publication of the letter. However, the appeal court found the applicants liable for defamation due to the inaccuracy of apparently factual statements they had made about the entertainment editor, which had in fact been untrue. The applicants were ordered to publish the judgment against them at their own expense.


A violation of Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights could not be determined. The ECtHR noted that the defamation claim had resulted from the NGOs’ private correspondence with the local authorities and that there was no evidence in that the applicant gave the letter to the public newspapers. Therefore, the radio entertainment editor’s right to reputation had to be weighed against the NGOs’ right to report irregularities about the conduct of a public servant to a body competent to deal with such complaints. After having heard witnesses, the appeal court found the NGOs liable because of the incorrectness of the factual statements made in their letter. In the ECtHR’s opinion, the national courts had correctly concluded that the NGOs had acted negligently in simply reporting the entertainment director’s alleged misconduct without making a reasonable effort to verify the information received.


According to the ECtHR the national courts found a fair balance between the competing interests. Therefore, there had been no violation of Article 10 ECHR.

Ass. jur. Robin Zeiger works as a Legal Affairs Manager at ZDF Enterprises GmbH in Germany.

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The Judgement is available in English language here.