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04.10.2017

Russian newspaper backed by Court over reporting on Kursk submarine accident

By Emil Weber

Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and its reporter, Ms. Yelena Valeryevna Milashina, were backed on Tuesday by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) over their reporting on a fatal submarine accident which had left 118 persons on board dead.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg (photo: Nicoleon, Cour européenne des droits de l'homme, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The crux of the matter was whether their reporting of a lawyer’s statements representing the family of a dead lieutenant amounted to defamation, as the domestic courts had decided. The ECtHR ruled that Russian courts had unjustifiably limited the right of freedom of expression and the newspaper and reporter were to be paid 5,580 Euros for pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages. 

Twenty three (23) out of 118 persons had survived an explosion on the Russian Navy nuclear missile submarine while on training exercise in August 2000, but they all eventually died before they could be rescued. Huddled together in a compartment of the sinking submarine, they wrote a note reporting the events which mentioned the signals they had sent asking for rescue. Later a military prosecution investigation for negligence and breach of the safety procedures by was terminated in 2002 for lack of evidence.     

Novaya Gazeta published two articles in January 2005 in which it quoted the lawyer representing the father of the captain who had written the note and had died in the fatal accident. The lawyer was quoted saying that the Chief Military Prosecutor and an investigator from the Chief Prosecutor’s office helped “officers in command…escape criminal responsibility” by terminating the investigation. He was further quoted as saying the two military prosecution officials and a forensic expert from the Ministry of Defence perpetrated “abuse of public office”.

The three named officials and the Chief Military Prosecution Office as an agency lodged a defamation complaint at Basmannyy District Court of Moscow. In December 2005, the court found that the articles damaged reputation of the officials through suggesting - but without providing evidence - that they had committed a crime. The newspaper was ordered to publish statements of retraction. Novaya Gazeta and the reporter were to pay in addition around 6,800 euros in compensation for the applications and costs of the process. The ruling was later upheld by the Moscow City Court.

The Third Section of ECtHR decided unanimously that the Russian courts’ rulings amounted to a violation of freedom of expression.

According to the court, the newspaper articles made it clear to readers that the opinions were made by the lawyer about acts which, in the view of the lawyer, constituted an abuse of public office. “In the Court’s view, in such circumstances, it cannot be said that the applicants failed to provide at least some factual basis for the impugned statements”.

The ECtHR said that the newspaper and the reporter “acted in good faith in accordance with the ethics of journalism” and that the reporter showed “the diligence expected of a responsible journalist reporting on a matter of public interest”.

It said the domestic courts failed to balance the officials’ “right to reputation against freedom of the press by providing ‘particularly strong reasons’ for an interference”.

The court said that persons mentioned in the Novaya Gazeta articles “by virtue of their respective positions…should have been more tolerant of criticism than private individuals”.

“The impugned articles were not strongly worded, could not be considered offensive, and did not constitute a gratuitous personal attack on the claimants”, read the Tuesday’s judgement.

Case of Novaya Gazeta and Milashina v. Russia, application no. 45083/06. 3 October 2017





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