Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
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The European Court of Human Rights held that a recording about a public figure and relating to matters in the public interest outweighed an individual’s right to privacy even though the recording was illegally obtained and presented in a format that was not clearly audible.
The domestic courts’ order that the applicant broadcasting company deliver a written and broadcast apology and pay a fine was an unjustified interference with its right to impart information under Article 10(1).
The European Court reiterated the essential role the press fulfills in a democratic society and that the restrictions on its freedom of expression must be construed strictly.
This case involves a company’s complaint in defamation against an individual for a violation of its Article 10 right to impart information.
Applicant, Radio Twist, is a broadcasting company that broadcast a telephone conversation between the Deputy Prime Minister and Minster of Finance (Mr. K) and the State Secretary at the Ministry of Justice (Mr. D). Mr. D subsequently filed a defamation action against the applicant arguing that the recording was illegally obtained, had harmed his reputation, contained incomplete and distorted information and was re-published by several other news outlets.
The District Court ruled in favor of Mr. D and ordered the applicant to broadcast a written apology and pay a fine of 100,000 Slovakian korunas. The District Court found that the applicant company had the right to use audio recordings without a person’s previous consent but this right had to be balanced with Mr. D’s rights. The Court found there were alternative ways of commenting on the situation without broadcasting a tape obtained illegally.
The applicant appealed, arguing that the airing of the conversation was a matter in the public interest, about a public official and that Mr. D had not suffered any reputational damage, referring to the fact that he had been appointed a judge while the litigation was ongoing. The Zilina Regional Court upheld the finding of the lower court, holding that although the media plays an important role in our society, this must be balanced with an individual’s right to privacy. This appeal followed.
In a unanimous decision the ECtHR held that there had been a violation of Article 10.
The government argued that although the conversation was about a public figure it was private in nature, the recording was made illegally and hardly intelligible, the sanctions were proportionate and, on balance, the rights of the individual outweighed the rights of the press in this case. The applicant countered that, “the interference complained of had not corresponded to any social need which could be considered sufficiently pressing to outweigh the public interest in ensuring the freedom of the media and in informing the public of matters of general interest.” Para. 46.
The Court firstly reiterated the important role that the press plays in a democratic society and how individuals who are public figures, such as politicians, receive less protection than private individuals. The Court found, and it was not disputed, that there was an interference and that the interference was prescribed by law. Therefore, the main question for the Court was whether this interference was “necessary in a democratic society.”
The Court soundly rejected the lower courts analysis that even though Mr. D was a public figure he had the right to have his privacy protected by law and that the recorded and broadcast telephone conversation was private in nature so it should not have been broadcast. Specifically, the Court found that the context and content of the telephone conversation was “clearly political”. It was between two high-ranking public officials and related to a matter in the public interest, namely the management and privatization of state enterprises. It was not relevant that the recording was not clearly audible. Further, the Court said, the applicant was not responsible for the alleged illegal recording, there was no evidence that the recording was untrue, Mr.D did not suffer any harm, and the applicant did not act in bad faith.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case expands expression by reiterating the importance of the press in fulfilling its role as a vital social watchdog and how, if acting in good faith, its right to freedom of expression and imparting information will weigh heavily against individual privacy rights.
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.
Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights are binding upon parties to the case and constitute an authoritative interpretation of the meaning of Convention rights for all other States that are party to the Convention.
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