Regional journalists win case against Russia

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has ruled in favour of two Russian journalists, working for small regional papers, who had sued the Russian Federation for violating their right to freedom of speech. Read more after the cut:

Press release issued by the Registrar

Chemodurov v. Russia (no. 72683/01) Violation of Article 10

The applicant, Viktor Vladimirovich Chemodurov, is a Russian national who was born in 1951 and lives in Kursk (Russia).

The case concerned Mr Chemodurov’s complaint about defamation proceedings brought against him following an article he wrote which was published in July 2000 in the Kurskiy Vestnik newspaper. The article criticised Governor Rutskoy and what he considered to be his “abnormal” reaction to allegations concerning misappropriation of regional funds. In October 2000 the domestic courts, although satisfied with the accuracy of the facts in the article, held that the use of the word “abnormal” was insulting and damaging to the Governor’s reputation and ordered the applicant to pay the Governor compensation.

He relied on Article 10 (freedom of expression).

The Court considered that the term “abnormal” should have been understood in its context, that is to say the description of a State official’s conduct which had not appeared appropriate in the circumstances. Indeed, the applicant had made it clear in his article that he had been referring to the Governor’s conduct and not his private life or mental health. Given the role of journalists to provide information and ideas of concern to the public, even when they might offend, shock or disturb, the Court found that using the word “abnormal” had not exceeded the acceptable limits of criticism. Moreover, as a prominent politician, the Governor should have displayed a greater degree of tolerance to criticism. The Court concluded that the domestic courts’ decisions had not been based on a acceptable assessment of the relevant facts and that the interference with the applicant’s freedom of expression had not been “necessary in a democratic society”. Accordingly, the Court held unanimously that there had been a violation of Article 10 and awarded the applicant EUR 50 for pecuniary damage and EUR 1,026 for costs and expenses. (The judgment is available only in English.)

Dyuldin and Kislov v. Russia (no. 25968/02) Violation of Article 10

The applicants, Viktor Gavrilovich Dyuldin and Aleksandr Ivanovich Kislov, are Russian nationals who were born in 1944 and 1948, respectively. They live in Penza (Russia).

The case concerned the applicants’ complaint about proceedings brought against them following the publication of an open letter in August 2000 in the Novaya birzhevaya gazeta newspaper. The letter was written following a round table between regional editors-in-chief, journalists and human-rights activists. It criticised the Penza Regional Government, alleging that it was hindering President Putin’s policy to curb corruption and expressed the feeling that the media were being repressed in order to deter them from exposing corruption among State officials. In May 2001 the domestic courts held that certain extracts of the letter were untrue and damaged the honour and dignity of members of the regional authorities. The newspaper and the applicants were ordered to pay compensation. The newspaper was further ordered to publish a rectification.

They relied on Article 10 (freedom of expression).

The Court reiterated that one of the fundamental requirements governing defamation was that a particular person be referred to. The only person specifically identified in the letter had been the regional governor, who did not actually bring defamation proceedings. If State officials were allowed to sue for defamation concerning any critical statement about State affairs, journalists would be inundated with lawsuits. That would result in an excessive burden being placed on the media and a reluctance to carry out their role of public watchdog. Furthermore, the Court considered the expressions used in the letter to have been value judgments whereas the domestic courts found them uniformly to have been statements. Value judgments were not susceptible of proof but had to be based on sufficient facts. The Court noted that the letter had been the result of a collective effort by a representative selection of experts who had first-hand knowledge of the media. It further noted with concern that the proof required to justify referring to the governor’s policy as “destructive” had been a scientific assessment of the social and economic development of the region. The Court stressed that the degree of precision required of a journalist when expressing an opinion on a matter of public concern could hardly be compared with that of an economic forecast. Besides, the value judgment had been made in the course of a lively political debate where elected officials and journalists should have enjoyed wide freedom to criticise local authority. The Court therefore concluded that the interference with the applicants’ freedom of expression had not been “necessary in a democratic society” and held unanimously that there had been a violation of Article 10. The applicants were awarded EUR 1,000 for non-pecuniary damage and EUR 5 for costs and expenses. (The judgment is available only in English.).

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