Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
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In 2004, Ovidiu Caragea, the CEO of a large private company in Romania, brought a defamation lawsuit against a journalist with a local newspaper for an article that allegedly damaged his reputation as well as his company’s financial situation. While equating him with a person of “dubious morality” and alleging that he had defrauded his business partners, the journalist had sought to criticize another daily newspaper for defending Caragea after he had faced several criminal investigations, none of which led to his indictment.
As his lawsuits were dismissed at the national level, Caragea filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the Romanian authorities failed to protect his right to reputation guaranteed under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Upon considering several factors in balancing the competing rights of privacy and freedom of expression, the Court did not find a violation of Article 8. The Court considered Caragea’s position as a public figure and, emphasizing that the journalist was entitled to exercise his editorial freedom to a degree of exaggeration and even provocation, held that the article was not “manifestly insulting.”
Between 1997 and 2004, a number of shareholders and employees of a large Romanian company filed criminal complaints against its CEO, Ovidiu Caragea, alleging improper conduct and mismanagement. Criminal investigations were begun and some were ongoing at the time of the Court’s judgment, but none led to Caragea’s indictment.
While several criminal investigations were underway, a journalist for the local newspaper Impact de Gorj published an article titled, “Who do we call when we disregard the law?” In the article, the journalist criticized another local newspaper for defending Caragea’s record. The journalist called it “unacceptable” for the other newspaper to defend Caragea “through some completely unverified articles” and “to transform him from a dirty person into a clean one.” [para. 7] The journalist further expressed his regret that the newspaper had defended “persons of dubious morality, perhaps even criminals, aiming neither to properly inform readers nor to provide a space for regular advertising.” [para. 7] The journalist emphasized that his intention was not to attack the newspaper, but, noting that the articles had been published anonymously, to find out who had written them.
In response, Caragea brought a criminal defamation complaint against the journalist, alleging that the article had damaged his reputation and risked endangering the company’s financial situation. In support of his claim, Caragea argued that none of the allegations stated in the article led to his indictment.
In March 2005, the Targu Jiu District Court of Romania dismissed the complaint, finding that the journalist had not intended to defame Caragea and that he had only sought to express his personal opinion and his disagreement with other local journalists who praised the CEO. Later in June 2005, the Gorj County Court dismissed Caragea’s appeal, reasoning that the criminal investigations had provided sufficient factual basis for the article.
In December 2005, Caragea filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that by failing to a carry out a thorough examination of his defamation lawsuit, the national authorities had violated his right to protection of reputation under Article 8 of the Convention.
At issue was whether the Romanian authorities had failed to protect Caragea’s reputation during the course of his defamation lawsuit. Under Article 8 of the Convention, “[e]veryone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.” The Court reiterated that while “’private life’ extends to aspects relating to personal identity and reputation”, in order to invoke Article 8 protection, “the attack on personal honour and reputation must attain a certain level of seriousness and be in a manner causing prejudice to personal enjoyment of the right to respect for private life.” [para. 20]
As the present case concerned Caragea’s reputation and his complaint that the journalist had harmed it, the Court’s task was to strike a fair balance between the two competing rights of privacy and freedom of expression. The Court recalled that this required the examination of several relevant factors, including “whether the article contributed to a debate of general interest, the definition of what constitutes a subject of general interest depending on the circumstances of the case; the degree of fame of the person concerned, namely his/her role or function and the nature of the activities that are the subject of the report, as well as the conduct of the person concerned prior to publication of the report; the journalist’s method of obtaining the information and its veracity, namely whether the journalist was acting in good faith and on an accurate factual basis, providing ‘reliable and precise’ information in accordance with the ethics of journalism; the content, form and consequences of the publication, involving an assessment of the way in which the report was published, the manner in which the person concerned was represented, as well as the extent to which the report was disseminated; and, lastly, the severity of the sanction imposed, if any.” [para. 24]
The Court further emphasized that when articles in the press contribute to a debate of general interest, “the extent of acceptable criticism is greater in respect of politicians or other public figures than in respect of private individuals.” [para. 25] Also, the Court reiterated that journalistic freedom not only embodies the right to impart favorable information and ideas, but also “those that offend, shock or disturb,” notwithstanding the legitimate exceptions under Article 10(2) of the Convention. [para. 27] Of particular relevance in the present case, the Court underscored the importance of distinguishing statements of fact from value judgments. While acknowledging that the proving the veracity of a value judgment or an opinion is “impossible to fulfill,” the Court stressed that “there must exist a sufficient factual basis to support it, failing which it could be excessive.” [para. 31]
Turning to the facts of the present case, the Court first found that content of the article at issue “plainly” concerned a matter of public interest; the domestic courts had concluded that the piece had been published as part of an ongoing debate as to whether the Romanian justice system properly conducted the criminal investigations against Caragea. Taking note that Caragea was the CEO of an important commercial company, the Court also agreed with the domestic courts’ finding that he could be deemed as a public figure and thus that the extent of acceptable criticism of him was greater than with regard to private individuals. Although the Court found that the domestic courts had failed to expressly classify the alleged defamatory statements in the article as statements of fact or value judgments, it generally deferred to the domestic courts’ assessment that the journalist had not intended to defame the CEO but simply to respond to articles published in another local newspaper.
In addition, the Court explained that the use of potentially provocative statements, as well as any inappropriate language in the article, were within the journalist’s editorial freedom. Considering that Caragea was a public figure, the language used was not “manifestly insulting” and therefore, protected by Article 10 of the Convention.
Lastly, the Court held that the potential adverse consequences that Caragea could suffer did not “attain the level of gravity justifying a restriction on the right to freedom of expression.” [para. 37] In this respect, the Court deferred to the domestic courts’ findings that Caragea’s claims of damage to his reputation were ill founded.
For these reasons, the European Court of Human Rights concluded that there was no violation of Article 8 of the Convention.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
While the underlying issue in the case was the applicant’s right to protection of his reputation, the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights affirmed the requirement of striking a fair balance when the two competing rights of privacy and free speech are at stake. The Court also reiterated that “freedom of expression is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb.”
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights are binding on parties to the case and constitute an authoritative interpretation of the Convention for all other Member States. This judgment adds to the Court’s growing body of jurisprudence on the conflict between reputation and freedom of expression, and helps interpret the level of gravity required for an attack on reputation to fall within the sphere of Article 8.
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