Defamation / Reputation, Indecency / Obscenity
Godfrey v. Demon Internet Limited
Closed Expands Expression
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The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found Romania in violation of the Article 8 rights of privacy of university professor Ion Cârstea whose domestic defamation proceedings against a local newspaper, which had published an article detailing his alleged sexual misdeeds, were rejected by the district court and the appellate court. Before the ECtHR Cârstea submitted that the domestic courts had failed both to properly verify the truthfulness of the article and to take in to account his allegations. Romania claimed that the information within the text was not only related to Cârstea’s private life, and that it was not so intolerable. The ECtHR had to decide whether the state had respected its positive obligation to protect Cârstea’s private life, and whether a fair balance between Articles 8 and 10 of the ECHR had been achieved. The ECtHR concluded that the article and photos seriously affected Cârstea’s honor, reputation, and private life, and that the domestic courts had not thoroughly examined if the article was an issue of public importance and whether Cârstea was a public figure in that context. Therefore, the ECtHR held there was a breach of Cârstea’s Article 8 right to privacy because the domestic courts had not made a fair balance between right to freedom of expression and the right to private life.
Ion Cârstea was professor at Craiova University in Romania. In 2001, in the local newspaper, Republica Oltenia, a journalist, credited as “R.C.,” published an article entitled “Feature story on sex-blackmail professor.” A photograph showing naked people having sex accompanied the article, and the journalist claimed one of the people shown was Cârstea. The article also discussed Cârstea’s alleged past misdeeds, including blackmailing his pregnant cousin 19 years ago and a former student 9 years ago.
Cârstea lodged a criminal defamation complaint with the Craiova District Court against journalist and the editor-in-chief of Republica Oltenia. Neither the journalist nor the editor-in-chief ever appeared before the Court, and the Court finally rejected Cârstea‘s claim. Cârstea unsuccessfully appealed this decision, as the court found that the journalist did not have a bad faith, that Cârstea was public person who, as such, has to tolerate a higher degree of critique, and that this is a matter of public importance.
Cârstea subsequently brought his case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on the ground of violation of Article 8 of the ECHR.
Romania first challenged admissibility of Cârstea’s application on the ground that he had insulted the national judges and had abused the right to petition. However, the ECtHR rejected these claims and declared his application admissible.
As for the merits, Cârstea stated that the article was defamatory and seriously affected his reputation. Cârstea also submitted that the domestic courts had failed both to properly verify the truthfulness of the article and to take in to account his allegations. Therefore, he claimed that the state had failed to protect his reputation against unlawful interference. Romania claimed that the information within the text was not only related to Cârstea’s private life, and that it was not so intolerable. Romania further stated that even if the article, to some extent, had offended Cârstea, the text did not exceed the journalist’s right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the ECHR.
The ECtHR “reiterate[d] that it has already been established in its case-law that ‘private life’ extends to aspects relating to personal identity and reputation” (para. 29). Also, the ECtHR emphasized that Article 8 encompasses the positive obligations of the state to protect and respect private life and reputation and to acknowledge that “[t]hese obligations may involve the adoption of measures designed to secure respect for private and family life, even in the sphere of the relations of individuals between themselves” (para. 30). Therefore, the ECtHR had to decide whether the state had respected its positive obligation to protect Cârstea’s private life, and whether a fair balance between Articles 8 and 10 of the ECHR had been achieved.
As for the question of whether the article had contributed to the public debate, the ECtHR “has previously found no public interest justifying the publication of data concerning a person’s health or reference to her sex life, which have been held to be of a purely private nature therefore falling within the protection of Article 8” (para. 33). The ECtHR then held that the domestic courts had not made an assessment of whether the facts from the article were of public interest and imparted information that public had the right to know.
The ECtHR also stated “the act of making such serious accusations against a person identified by their name and occupation, such as the applicant, involves an obligation on behalf of the journalist to provide a sufficient factual basis for his statements” (para. 35). The ECtHR found that the domestic courts had neither analyzed whether the journalist had obtained the information about Cârstea legally nor had they checked to see whether Cârstea had verified the information prior to being published (or if Cârstea had been offered the right to reply). Also, the ECtHR noted that the domestic courts had automatically regarded the publication’s sources as credible and had assumed that the journalist had acted in good faith.
Finally, as for the allegations that Cârstea was a public figure, the ECtHR held that the domestic courts had, again, made an automatic assumption, without any assessment, that, due to the fact that Cârstea is university professor, he should be exposed to criticism and regarded as public figure.
The ECtHR concluded that the article and photos seriously affected Cârstea’s honor, reputation, and private life, and that the domestic courts had not thoroughly examined if the article was an issue of public importance and whether Cârstea was a public figure in that context. Therefore, the ECtHR held there was a breach of Cârstea ‘s Article 8 right to privacy because the domestic courts had not made a fair balance between right to freedom of expression and the right to private life.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision confirms the long standing position of the ECtHR that, when it comes to the issue of competing human rights (here, ECHR Articles 8 and 10), a detailed assessment has to be conducted and a fair balance between the rights must be considered. The ECtHR also reiterated that right to privacy also encompasses the positive obligation of a state to protect not only a person’s privacy, but his reputation also.
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.
ECtHR decisions are binding upon the parties involved.
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