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17.10.2017

Romanian journalist had the right to criticise mayor live on TV, wins 21,000 EUR damages

By Emil Weber

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has supported an investigative Romanian journalist who complained of a violation of her freedom of expression by the domestic courts concerning comments made in live television show. 

Romanian journalist had the right to criticise mayor live on TV The case concerns comments about the mayor's shares in an hotel at Mamaia

The top European court’s interpretation is relevant to debates about media ethics as, amongst other things, it further elucidates its views on the responsibility for the content of live media. It recognises that the possibility to refine statements made in such live media is limited.  

Ms.Ghiulfer Predescu, the journalist invited as a guest in the show, linked the then-mayor of the Romanian city of Constanţa with recent armed fighting which had taken place in the city, in summer 2006. Among others, a hotel was “severely damaged”. The mayor of the city where a shareholder in the company that owned the hotel. Ms. Predescu said that it was known that for several years “the war” in the city involved two clans.  One supported the mayor and the other was against him. According to her, the fighting originated from earlier hotel business quarrels between the mayor and the person whom the opposing clan supported.    

 "Send her to psychiatric hospital"

Appearing live in the TV show, the mayor said the journalist needed “to be hospitalised - in a psychiatric hospital”, calling her statements “all false” and without evidence to support them. Ms. Predescu replied: “What I have said, I said as an observer of the daily events; these things have been observed, discussed, noted for years”.

Later that year, the mayor initiated a defamatory civil complaint asking for damages, a letter of apology, and publication of the court judgment in two newspapers at the expense of the journalist. Considering the ECtHR judgements, the Constanţa District Court dismissed  the mayor’s claim in 2007 and noted that Ms.Predescu had during the proceedings provided newspaper stories and an investigative article where the mayor was mentioned in connection to “several ongoing criminal activities”. However, the Constanţa County Court accepted the appeal of the mayor in 2008 and Ms.Predescu was held responsible for deliberately discrediting the mayor and damaging his reputation. Her later appeal was dismissed and she claimed to have complied with the judgment for paying the damages to the mayor and republishing the judgment with apologies in two newspapers.

"In public interest and good faith" 

However, the European Court of Human Rights - assessing the principles of public interest and public persona, the context of the live media, good faith journalism and proportionality of the fine - ruled on 17 June 2017 that the interference with the right to freedom of expression against Ms.Predescu was unjustified in a democratic society.

The Fourth Section of the ECtHR said that the journalist’s “statements were made in the context of a lively debate on a matter of public interest, namely the maintenance of public order in the city of Constanţa”.

It further said that it is right to keep the mayor’s “actions and behaviour in public life” to close scrutiny. “The domestic court had in fact established that (the mayor) had taken part in the televised debate in his dual capacity as a local business owner as well as a local politician”, reads the judgment. “Indeed, at the relevant time, (he) was the mayor of the town of Constanţa and in that capacity, a well-known local public figure”.

The court mentioned the particular context of the statements made - that is, live on television - which the domestic court had found defamatory. “The TV show was designed to encourage an exchange of views or even an argument, in such a way that the opinions expressed would counterbalance each other…The show was broadcast live on television, so the applicant had but a limited possibility of reformulating, refining or retracting any statements before they were made public”, the judgement said.

According to the ECtHR, Ms.Predescu’s statements “remained within the acceptable limits of journalistic freedom”. It said the statements were value judgements, the journalist had stressed this during the show, and her judgments had a factual basis in the newspaper and investigative articles she had presented to the domestic courts.

The court said that there was nothing in the case “to suggest that the (Ms. Predescu’s) allegations were made otherwise than in good faith and in pursuit of the legitimate aim of debating on a matter of public interest”. It also considered the fine against the journalist as disproportionate and awarded her 21,869 euros in damages and costs.

The ECtHR said that “the punishment of a journalist for having worded her opinions in a specific manner would seriously hamper the contribution of the press to discussion of matters of public interest and should not be envisaged unless there are particularly strong reasons for doing so”.

Case of Ghiulfer Predescu v. Romania, application no. 29751/09. 17 June 2017

 

 





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