Defamation / Reputation, Political Expression
WIC Radio Ltd. v. Simpson
Closed Expands Expression
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The grandson of Joseph Stalin sued a local newspaper because of an accusatory article about his grandfather and the USSR during the 1940s that he found to be “false, fanciful and completely unsubstantiated” [para. 6]. He brought the case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) for violations of Article, 6, 10 and 14 of European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), alleging that the domestic courts’ decisions had amounted to approval of slander against his grandfather. Although the ECtHR found the claim to fall better under to the right to private life provision under Article 8 of the ECHR, it ultimately held the application inadmissible on the ground that the domestic courts had appropriately balanced the right to private life with the right to freedom of expression.
In April 2009, Novaya Gazeta, a Russian opposition newspaper, published an article entitled “Beria pronounced guilty.” The article addressed the shooting of Polish prisoners in Katyn in 1940 and accused the USSR government of having been “bound by much blood” and referred to Joseph Stalin, the USSR’s prime minister during the period covered by the article, as “a bloodthirsty cannibal” [para. 5].
Yevgeniy Yakovlevich Dzhugashvili, Stalin’s grandson, sued the newspaper and the article’s author for defamation and non-pecuniary damages in the amount of 9.5 million RUB. The Basmanniy District Court of Moscow dismissed the claim. The Court’s logic was that it was in no position to rule on whether Dzhugashvili’s positive view of Stalin or the newspaper’s negative view was more important or better reasoned. The Court acknowledged that discussion of Stalin generates “exceptional public interest and requires additional reflections and a profound historical study, and that is why it cannot be restricted as it lies beyond the sphere of law as a manifestation of the elements of the civil society in the Russian Federation” [para. 9].
The Court found the phrases about blood thirst and Stalin being a cannibal to have been solely metaphorical and figurative, given the article’s context. On the article’s claims that Stalin had evaded responsibility for grievous crimes, the Court ruled that such discussions are in the realm of freedom of the press. Specifically, that “[F]reedom of the press furthermore affords the public one of the best means of discovering and forming an opinion of the ideas and attitudes of political leaders” [para. 10]. The Court also dismissed Dzhugashvili’s allegations that the article was abusive.
After the Court’s decision was upheld at the higher Moscow City Court, Dzhugashvili filed an application with the ECtHR, alleging violations of ECHR Articles 6, 10, and 14 and arguing that the Russian courts “had failed to protect his well-known ancestor from attacks on his reputation” [para. 19].
Before the ECtHR, Dzhugashvili argued that the Russian courts had violated ECHR Articles 6, 10 and 14 by failing to “protect his well-known ancestor from attacks on his reputation” [para. 19]. The ECtHR found Article 8 of the ECHR to be more applicable in this case, because it directly deals with the right to respect to private life and forbids government intervention on such a right.
The issue, however, became whether a person could claim Article 8 violations for statements about his grandfather, i.e., whether the person could be considered an immediate victim of an alleged violation. The ECtHR ruled that Dzhugashvili could not rely on his grandfather’s right under Article 8 because it is non-transferable in nature.
Moreover, the ECtHR explained that the scope of Article 8 has to be considered carefully in regards to public figures, “who, by taking up leadership roles, expose themselves to outside scrutiny” [para. 30 ]. The ECtHR also reiterated that the right to respect for private life must be balanced against the right to freedom of expression under ECHR Article 10 and asserted that seeking historical truth is an integral part of that freedom.
Ultimately, the ECtHR found Dzhugashvili’s application to be inadmissible, holding that the Russian courts had “struck a fair balance, required in the context of the State’s positive obligations, between the journalist’s freedom of expression under Article 10 and the applicant’s right under Article 8” [para. 35].
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The ECtHR affirmed the decisions of the Russian courts, finding they had fairly balanced the right to freedom of expression with the right to respect for private life.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Seeking historical truth falls under Article 10.
The rights guaranteed by article 8 are non-transferable and must be balanced against the right to freedom of expression.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
The decision reiterates that public figures can be scrutinized in a way that does not necessarily violate their right to respect for private life and that the right to seek historical truth is encompassed within the right to freedom of expression.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.