Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
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The European Court of Human Rights found that the Hungarian courts had not violated the right to reputation of a well-known poet’s widow by dismissing her claim against a newspaper over a front-page headline of a newspaper. The headline stated that the widow was trampling on the memory of her late husband because of her plans for her sister to have a child with the poet’s grandson. The European Court of Human Rights was satisfied that the Hungarian courts had struck a fair balance between the journalist’s right to freedom of expression and the widow’s right to have her reputation respected in dismissing the claim for compensation over the headline. In particular, the European Court of Human Rights took the view that the potential negative consequences that the widow might have suffered due to the headline were not so serious as to justify a restriction on the right to freedom of expression.
The case concerned Ms. Katalin Fatime Faludy-Kovács, who was the widow of a well-known Hungarian poet (György Faludy). Since their marriage in 2002, their relationship had received significant press coverage and appeared frequently in the tabloids. This was partly due to the 65-year age difference between Ms. Faludy-Kovács and her late husband.
Around two years after her husband’s death in 2006, an article was published in a daily newspaper, Blikk, that was based on an interview with Ms. Faludy-Kovács. In this interview, she said that she wanted to have a child who would be a blood relative of both her and her late husband. She explained that she envisaged her own sister and her late husband’s grandson being the parents of the child.
The same story was republished on March 26, 2008 by one of the biggest weekly newspapers in Hungary, Helyi Téma. This article added that the poet’s grandson had dismissed the idea of having a child with Ms. Faludy-Kovács’ sister. The front page of the newspaper featured a photograph of Ms. Faludy-Kovács and her late husband, accompanied by the headline “Trampling on the memory of Faludy. The widow does everything for the limelight”. Following Ms. Faludy-Kovács’ repeated requests, the newspaper published an additional article about a book to be published on György Faludy.
The applicant subsequently lodged a civil complaint against the publisher of the weekly newspaper alleging a violation of her personality rights, in particular her right to reputation. On April 5, 2009, the Budapest Regional Court granted an injunction against further infringement, ordered a public apology, and obliged the publisher to pay Ms. Faludy-Kovács 2,000 EUR in respect of non-pecuniary damage. It held, among other things, that Ms. Faludy-Kovács’ views on childbearing were not contrary to the memory of György Faludy. The Budapest Regional Court concluded that the allegation that Ms. Faludy-Kovács did everything for the limelight had not infringed her personality rights, but the statement that she had trampled on her husband’s memory had infringed her right to reputation and dignity.
On December 8, 2011, the Budapest Court of Appeal reversed the previous judgment and dismissed Ms. Faludy-Kovács’ action. It stated that even shocking, disturbing or inaccurate opinions were protected by the right to freedom of expression and were not susceptible to proof. It held that the headline was not a statement of fact but rather a value judgment expressed in connection with the applicant’s own “peculiar” statements. [para.14]
On September 12, 2012, the Supreme Court (Kúria) upheld the decision of the Budapest Court of Appeal. It found that the headline could not be considered humiliating, hurtful or offensive since it was a value judgment that was not devoid of a factual basis.
The case was brought to the European Court of Human Rights by Ms. Faludy-Kovács claiming that the headline of the article had damaged her right to respect for her reputation, as guaranteed by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. She argued that, among other things, the national courts had failed to strike a fair balance between her interest in protecting her right to reputation and the interest of the newspaper in publishing the headline. Moreover, she argued that the newspaper’s interest was purely financial in nature, the headline was sensationalist, and the headline was deliberately hurtful and defamatory. The Government argued that the Hungarian courts should be given a wide margin of appreciation since they had taken into account all the circumstances of the case and had struck a balance between the two competing interests. The Government maintained that the expression was a value judgment with a sufficient factual basis, and that it did not amount to an attack on Ms. Faludy-Kovács.
The European Court of Human Rights (Court) held that the national courts had not violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Convention). In doing so, the Court applied the well-established criteria in its case-law that were relevant to the balancing of the rights under Articles 10 (right to freedom of expression) and 8 (right to respect for private life) of the Convention (see Von Hannover v. Germany (no. 2))
How well known is the person concerned and what is the subject of the report?
The Court observed that none of the parties disputed that Ms. Faludy-Kovács, as widow of a well-known Hungarian poet, was a “well known person of contemporary society” (i.e. a public figure). [para. 30] Therefore, she was considered to have knowingly exposed herself to public scrutiny and should have displayed a greater degree of tolerance than a private individual.
Prior conduct of the person concerned
The Court noted that Ms. Faludy-Kovács and her late husband had revealed details about their private life in a number of interviews and other media publications in the past. The Court recognized that previous co-operation with the media would not necessarily deprive an individual of their right to privacy. However, in this case, the Court observed that Ms. Faludy-Kovács “had actively sought the limelight so, having regard to the degree to which she was known to the public, her ‘legitimate expectation’ that her private life would not attract public attention and would not be commented on was henceforth reduced.” [para. 31]
Content, form and consequences of the publication
The Court opined that the statement in the headline that Ms. Faludy-Kovács was “trampling on the memory” of her husband clearly represented the journalist’s interpretation of the applicant’s family plans. Therefore, it was a kind of moral criticism of these plans. Moreover, the Court noted that the headline related to Ms. Faludy-Kovács’ own statements that were reproduced in the article, and it did not contain unsubstantiated allegations. The Court went on to observe that the fact that the headline was designed to attract public attention could not, in itself, raise an issue under its case law. Furthermore, the Court considered the headline to be a matter of editorial choice.
As for the consequences of the headline, the Court took into account the extensive media coverage that had been trigged by the couple, and agreed with the approach of the domestic court in finding that the headline had not been very prejudicial of Ms. Faludy-Kovács’ honor and reputation, and could not be regarded as especially harmful to her psychological integrity.
Method of obtaining the information and its veracity
The Court observed that the information in the article was voluntarily expressed by Ms. Faludy-Kovács and was not acquired in circumstances unfavorable to her. Moreover, no evidence of misconduct on the part of the journalist, such as factual misinterpretation or subterfuge, was put before the Court.
Contribution of the article to a debate of public interest
The Court noted that the national courts had not analyzed whether the general subject matter of the article concerned an issue of public interest. In the Court’s view, since Ms. Faludy-Kovács gave an interview about her family plans clearly for the purpose of satisfying the curiosity of a certain readership, the question of whether the expression in issue covered a subject of public interest was of “minor relevance”. [para. 37] Therefore, the Court found that the absence of this consideration in the domestic courts’ reasoning did not have an impact on the balancing exercise between the two competing rights.
In light of these considerations, the Court was satisfied that the domestic courts had struck a fair balance between the journalist’s freedom of expression and the applicant’s right to have her reputation respected. Accordingly, the Court concluded there had been no violation of Ms. Faludy-Kovács’ right to respect for her reputation under Article 8 of the Convention.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This decision expands expression since the European Court of Human Rights found that a weekly newspaper’s headline had not violated the right to reputation of a well-known poet’s widow in circumstances where she had already spoken publicly about her relationship with the poet and her controversial plan to continue their bloodline. Of particular note in this case, the Court observed that it will not always be necessary for a court to consider to what extent a publication contributed to a debate of public interest. This was one such case, since Ms. Faludy-Kovács had already discussed the relevant information (i.e. family plans) in order to satisfy the curiosity of a certain readership. This would seem to strengthen the media’s right to discuss aspects of an individual’s private life, that are not strictly of public interest, in circumstances where that person has already demonstrated a willingness to court the media in relation to those aspects of their life. The Court also gave particular protection to headlines aimed at drawing public attention, noting that a headline can be protected as an “editorial choice” under the right to freedom of expression.
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