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29.03.2016

Portugal found guilty of press freedom violation

by Ana Ribeiro

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has found the Portuguese state guilty of violating freedom of expression after a journalist was fined for broadcasting courtroom recordings without the judge’s approval.

ECHR Portugal_900 Portuguese journalist Sofia Pinto Coelho won a press freedom case against Portuguese courts with the ECHR. (Photo: Publico.pt)

According to the ECHR ruling and related press release, issued on 22 March 2016, the complainant was Sofia Pinto Coelho, legal affairs reporter for the Portuguese TV Channel SIC. In November 2005, Coelho reported on a criminal court conviction in Sintra, Portugal – and broadcasted images of the courtroom and sound recordings of trial participants.

For this, a complaint was lodged against her by the Portuguese court accusing her of having used the audio-visual material from the courtroom without permission. This ended up with a conviction of the journalist. The ECHR ruled on the the case last week as the journalist claimed that Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the article for freedom of expression, was violated by the Portuguese court decision.

“Unauthorised transmission was prohibited”

Coelho’s report on the case of an 18-year-old man originally from Cape Verde who had been found guilty of “aggravated theft of a mobile phone” highly criticised the verdict: the journalist deemed it to be erroneous and tried to defend the young man’s innocence on the evening news programme by using footage from his court hearing.

Coelho and her colleagues were found guilty of breaching the provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure and of the Criminal Code. She was fined to pay €1,500 for non-compliance with a legal order in August 2008, as it was claimed “that the scenes from the hearing that had been broadcast were not essential for the report, that the freedom of the press was not absolute and that the applicant, a lawyer by training, had been aware that unauthorised transmission of the hearing was prohibited.”

The journalists claimed that the freedom of the press was violated by this decision, but the legal decision was upheld by the Lisbon Court of Appeal in May 2009, and Coelho’s appeal was dismissed by the Constitutional Court in February 2011. They then turned to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights.

Violation of Article 10

Coelho’s lawyer brought the case against the Portuguese state to the ECHR in July 2011, claiming a violation of Article 10. The ECHR defended Coelho's position, finding indeed a breach in freedom of expression. This provision includes the “freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority.” The European court awarded Coelho €1,500 in damages plus €4,623.84 in costs and expenses.

Spanish daily newspaper Público now quotes Coelho as saying that the ECHR decision “is a door that opens to radios and televisions."

It was the first time that the use of audio sounds in trials was discussed. What we always defend is that sounds ought to be treated as procedural pieces, as the minutes of judgments.

Público also reports that in the ECHR ruling, 6-1 in favor of Coelho, judges took into account that her take on the convict‘s case back in 2005 was broadcast after the sentencing, and therefore did not interfere with the results (he was sent to prison); it also did not compromise the identity of trial participants since their voices had been digitally altered in it.

  





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