Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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Erla Hlynsdottir, a journalist, was convicted of defamation after reporting that the director of a Christian rehabilitation center and his wife had engaged in sex games with the patients. Despite the rulings by District Court and the Supreme Court to uphold that ruling, the European Court found that Article 10 had been violated and ordered Iceland to pay Hlynsdottir a total of 8000 euros in damages.
Erla Hlynsdottir, the applicant, was a journalist working in Reykjavik for the newspaper DV. In 2007, Hlynsdottir published an article entitled “Satan’s attacks” about a high profile criminal case involving the director of the Christian rehabilitation center, Byrgio, and the director’s wife. The article contained an interview with a woman who claims she was sexually abused at the center by the couple. The article also claims that that the director had a gambling problem and embezzled funds for the center.
This woman had pressed charges against the director. She alleged that the director and his wife were involved in sex games with the female patients. Likewise, the couple’s financial manager of Byrgio and close friend also stated that the couple had sexually abused several patients. The court refers to the couple only as Mrs. X and Mr. Y.
The director’s wife brought proceedings before the Reykjavik District Court, and she claimed that the fourteen statements published in Hlynsdottir’s article were defamatory. The District Court held that only one quote was defamatory and ordered Hlynsdottir to pay 550 euros for non-pecuniary damages, and this ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court.
Hlynsdottir filed an application with the European Court, claiming the rulings violated her right to freedom of expression under Article 10. Hlynsdottir argued that the statements could not be interpreted as insinuating that the director’s wife was guilty of a criminal act. She also argued that the “Supreme Court judgment lacked reasoning on why the remark was considered defamatory and why the interference was considered necessary in a democratic society.”
The European Court of Human Rights held that the national courts did not properly balance the right to freedom of expression with the right to reputation, and, therefore, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been violated. The Court stated that careful scrutiny must be applied when national authorities’ acts may discourage the press’ participation in debates over matters of public concern. A key factor in the court’s analysis was whether the press fulfills an essential function in a democratic society.
The Court decided that the domestic courts did not adequately explain how the published statements could be perceived by a reader as an innuendo for a criminal act, given that they statements not contain any reference to a legal provision or a criminal offense. The Court found that the Supreme Court did not base its judgment on relevant and sufficient grounds that Hlynsdottir had acted in bad faith or out of line with the duties of a journalist reporting on a matter of public interest. The Court ordered Icleand to pay Hlynsdottir 2.500 euros for pecuniary damages and 5,500 euros for non-pecuniary damages.
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