Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
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The plaintiff, Mr. Kochetkov, filed a complaint with a Russian administrative court against the newspaper “Vecherniy Krastnoturinsk” and its editors alleging that he was defamed in an article that described him as a monster who beat a person to death. Kochetkov claimed that the article caused him and his family physical, emotional, and fiscal harm. The court found that the article was based on an opinion and did not provide enough personal information for a reader to understand that it concerned Kochetkov. Thus, the court dismissed the complaint.
In August 2007, police detained Kochetkov as a murder suspect and he was later convicted of the murder in court. Soon after his arrest, the newspaper “Vecherniy Krastnoturinsk” published an article about the murder. The article did not identify Kochetkov by his full name, but solely by his first name, Vladimir. However, Kochetkov argued that the article named his wife’s relative, the case investigator and the deceased victim, and hence those who knew Kochetkov and his family could easily guess that the article concerned him.
Kochetkov argued that the newspaper article was defamatory because it contained false and unverified information. Particularly, the article claimed that the victim was beaten to death, while a police investigation showed that the victim died from blood loss due to a single stab wound. Kochetkov complained that as the result of the publication his daughter was bullied at school and called a monster’s daughter. His wife also told him that unknown individuals spray painted the word “murderer” by the door to their apartment. Kochetkov claimed that these events have caused him physical and emotional harm.
Kochetkov requested that the newspaper publicly apologize, republish the article with corrected information, and compensate him in the amount of RUB 50 million. The claim was brought under Article 152 of the Civil Code of Russian Federation on the Protection of Honor, Dignity and Business Reputation.
In turn, the newspaper argued that the article did not identify Kochetkov by his full name, and thus readers did not know that the story referred to him. The newspaper also stressed that the version of the murder recounted in the article was based on an interview with the deceased’s mother, which was her opinion rather than as a statement of fact. Lastly, the newspaper highlighted that Kochetkov could have used the right of reply to offer his version of the events.
First, the court highlighted the relevant law. The court clarified that, to a bring successful defamation claim under Article 152, the plaintiff must establish three elements:
Failure to establish one of the elements voids the claim.
The court interpreted “dissemination” to include a publication of information in print media. The court interpreted “false statements” to mean claims about facts or events that have not occurred. Defamatory information may be statements about: criminal activities; dishonest acts; wrong or unethical behavior in private, public, or political life; lack of good faith in entrepreneurial activity; violation of business ethics or practices that harm the business reputation of a person or an entity.
The court stressed that, according to Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights and Article 29 of the Russian Constitution, and according to the precedent of the European Court of Human Rights, in reviewing defamation cases, a court must differentiate between statements of fact that can be verified and value judgments, opinions, and beliefs that are subjective and unverifiable. Subjective and unverifiable facts cannot serve as the basis of a defamation claim.
The court then reiterated that Russia’s Law on the Media guarantees the right of reply to clarify false allegations or to offer a different perspective, but that Kochetkov did not use this right.
The court then reviewed the facts. It established that the interview with the deceased’s mother was simply an opinion, and thus, did not need to be verified. The court did not clarify how it determined that the interview was an opinion rather than a statement of fact. Furthermore, there was no demand from the mother that the interview had to be approved by her prior to publication.
Lastly, the court held that it was impossible to determine that the article referred to Kochetkov because his last name, patronymic, date of birth, place or birth, place of residence, and other personal data were not listed in the article. Thus, Kochetkov could not bring a claim on the basis of protecting his honor and dignity.
The court therefore rejected Kochetkov’s complaint.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision expands expression because it stresses the use of the right of reply, rather than law suits, to challenge allegedly false information. The court also referred to the European Convention of Human Rights, suggesting the Convention’s acceptance in Russia’s courts.
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.
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