Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Mixed Outcome
Global Freedom of Expression is an academic initiative and therefore, we encourage you to share and republish excerpts of our content so long as they are not used for commercial purposes and you respect the following policy:
Attribution, copyright, and license information for media used by Global Freedom of Expression is available on our Credits page.
This case concerned a prosecutor who filed defamation claims against a journalist who published articles alleging that the prosecutor had falsified evidence in two cases concerning a third party. The journalist’s trial conviction for defamation was overturned on appeal. The prosecutor then filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) alleging that the journalist’s articles violated the prosecutor’s Article 8 right to respect for private and family life. The ECtHR found an Article 8 violation.
The Applicant, Elena Lavric, was a public prosecutor in Romania who charged a third party with two crimes, one in 2000 and one in 2001. The Respondent was a journalist who published two articles in 2002 concerning the aforementioned charges, after the third party filed a complaint against the Applicant alleging prosecutorial malpractice.
Although the malpractice case against the Applicant was eventually dismissed, the Respondent published two articles in which he claimed that the Applicant had intentionally falsified evidence during the prosecutorial proceedings against the third party. The first article was titled, “Judicial corruption. Prosecutor L. falsified two indictments! An innocent person was sentenced to prison.” The second article was titled, “E.L., the prosecutor who falsifies indictments.” Despite these allegations, the Applicant was never found to have falsified any evidence or to have committed any kind of malpractice.
The Applicant sued the journalist for defamation, and the trial court found in her favor. On appeal, however, the journalist’s conviction was vacated and the case was remanded for further consideration in the context of protecting journalists’ freedom of expression as “necessary in a democratic society.” The Applicant then filed an application with the ECtHR alleging that the Romanian courts had violated her Article 8 right to respect for private and family life under the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”).
In reaching its decision, the ECtHR noted that Romania had a positive obligation to ensure respect for the Applicant’s Article 8 right to a private life. Significantly, the ECtHR explicitly read a right to reputation into Article 8 ECHR, and accordingly, noted that Romania had a positive obligation to protect the Applicant’s right to reputation.
The ECtHR explained that, although consideration of the Applicant’s status as a public figure was appropriate, such a status does not excuse the Respondent from demonstrating a sufficient factual basis for the claims made in the published articles. In striking the appropriate balance between the freedom of expression and the right to reputation, the Court found that the journalist had not written the articles with the appropriate care required to incur freedom of expression protections. And in failing to provide an adequate remedy to the Applicant for the journalist’s affront on her right to reputation, Romania had not met its positive obligations to the Applicant to protect that right.
Thus, the ECtHR found a violation of Article 8 ECHR because the Romanian government had failed to protect the Applicant’s right to reputation and had failed to provide an adequate remedy.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
In this case, the ECtHR stressed the necessity of journalistic due diligence in allowing a journalist to lose a defamation suit lodged on the basis of articles that consisted largely of information the journalist collected from court records. The journalist stepped beyond the permissible “value judgment” arena when he made what appeared to be factual claims about the guilt of the Applicant in this case. The case therefore clarifies and stresses the need for journalists to exercise appropriate care in making factual claims that may damage the reputations of others. This decision neither expands nor contracts expression.
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.
The case is particularly significant in that the ECtHR explicitly reads a positive “right to reputation” into the Article 8 right to respect for private and family life. This case puts ECHR States Parties on notice that Article 8 prescribes to states a positive obligation to protect citizens’ right to reputation.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.