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19.10.2017

Court rules Russian editor was wrongly restricted over three local newspaper articles 

By Emil Weber

A newspaper editor in Fryazino, Russia, was unjustifiably sanctioned by the domestic justice following three articles published in 2005, according to a recent judgement issued by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).  

Court rules Russian editor wrongly restricted in three articles Fryazino, where the local newspaper editor was 'unjustly fined' three times

Ms.Inna Ivanovna Cheltsova - a pensioner, founder and editor-in-chief of the weekly Fryazinets -received three court verdicts during 2005-2006 sanctioning her with retraction statements and monetary damages. The ECtHR says the rulings violated article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Civil servants: they get less protection than private individuals

After it had published a statement from the Shchelkovo town prosecutor, announcing that he initiated a criminal case, Fryazinets received calls from members of the public. It then published another story reporting that the person accused by the prosecutor worked at mayor’s Public Reception Office. The callers claimed, she was rude to visitors and unlawfully had a second job in a local company.

The Shchelkovo Town Court, in September 2005, ruled that these claims that the official behaved badly towards the visitors and had a second job were found unproven. Ms.Cheltsova, the newspaper editor, was ordered to publish a statement of retraction and was charged with a non-pecuniary damage. The Moscow Regional Court later upheld the verdict.

However, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that “civil servants acting in an official capacity are, like politicians, subject to wider limits of acceptable criticism than private individuals”. In the particular case, it argued, the article was in the public interest of the readers in Fryazino as it related to the way a local official did her job.

“The domestic courts did not perform a balancing exercise between the need to protect the plaintiff’s reputation and the Convention standard, which requires very strong reasons for justifying restrictions on debates on questions of public interest”, the judgement reads.

The top European human rights court said there was justification for allegations made in the newspaper in relation to the official’s second job claims, including the ongoing official investigation by the prosecutor, which were treated selectively during the domestic proceedings.   

According to the ECtHR, the public’s views of the official’s behaviour were value judgements, but were treated as statements of fact. “The requirement to prove the truth of a value judgement is impossible to fulfil and infringes the freedom of opinion itself”, the judgement says. It notes that there was evidence presented during the proceedings which demonstrated sufficient factual basis behind the value judgments, but this was too ignored.

The court said the statements in the article were not strongly worded and offensive, and the punishment of the editor was disproportionate - four times her monthly income as a pensioner.

Journalists can't get punished for dissemination

The second article of the Fryazinets was an interview with a businessman who was standing as a candidate in the election for mayoral office. The candidate accused the sitting mayor’s wife of stealing a land-use plan while working in land registry office (state unitary enterprise). Eventually, the newspaper was again ordered by the court to publish a retraction s and to pay non-pecuniary damages.

The ECtHR said the mayor’s wife’s “position as a manager of a local branch of a State unitary enterprise could be likened to that of a civil servant”. Since the statement that the newspaper article referred to was made in relation to her duties at the enterprise, it falls within the public interest. 

Although the court noted that the newspaper had not given evidence of trying to prove the statement, it was made clear that the statement referred to an earlier public complaint that was raised at the office of the public prosecutor. The Court also said that “it is noteworthy that the impugned statement was not an expression employed by the (newspaper), but part of the (mayoral candidate’s) interview”.

“Punishing a journalist for assisting in the dissemination of statements made by another person in an interview would seriously hamper the contribution of the press to discussion of matters of public interest and should not be contemplated unless there are particularly strong reasons for doing so”, ECtHR said. “The domestic courts…paid no heed to the fact that the statements did not emanate from the applicant but were clearly identified as someone else’s”.

The court ruled that the newspaper acted in good faith by accurately reporting the words of the interviewee, that the domestic intervention was not backed by particularly strong reasons, and that Ms. Cheltsova’s punishment in damages was disproportionate to her income.

Sanctioned for appeal addressed to President Putin

The third Fryazinets’s article was an item of electoral campaign material, paid for by a mayoral candidate, and addressed as his appeal to the President Vladimir Putin. The candidate asked authorities to investigate the business activities of an entrepreneur with ties to the Fryazino’s sitting mayor. In 2006, the domestic court ordered the newspaper to publish a retraction and pay non-pecuniary damages.  

The ECtHR ruled, however, that the right to acceptable criticism is wider for the politicians and that political debate is “at the very core of the concept of a democratic society”.

“The publication appeared in the context of an election campaign for the office of mayor of Fryazino […] Freedom of the press affords the public one of the best means of discovering and forming an opinion about the ideas and attitudes of political leaders”, reads the European court’s judgement. “Free elections and freedom of expression, particularly freedom of political debate, together form the bedrock of any democratic system […] The two rights are interrelated and operate to reinforce each other”.

According to the ECtHR, the domestic courts did not consider the fact that the statements reproduced in the newspaper were made by one of the candidates and that the newspaper had stated that the he had paid for the content. “A newspaper cannot be required to systematically verify the truth of every comment made by one politician about another in the context of a public political debate before publishing such comments”, the judgement says.

It ruled that the courts did not weigh the interests in the context of the elections, that the defamation claims against the editor were not in line with article 10, and that her punishment was disproportionate to her monthly income.

Case of Chelstova v. Russia, application no. 44294/06. 13 June 2017

 





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