Defamation / Reputation, Political Expression
Usón Ramírez v. Venezuela
Venezuela, Bolivarian Republic of
Closed Expands Expression
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.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found that it is in violation of Article 10(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights to criminally prosecute public officials for their statements made on issues of public debate that also called into the question exercising the public function of other officials.
The present case arises out of a criminal conviction of the Applicant, in his capacity as the Director of a public corporation called “The Water Supply and Sewage Systems”, for the statements that he made in a newspaper article regarding the quality of water in Herceg Novi.
In 2003, a Montenegro daily newspapers published an article, stating that the water in Herceg Novi was full of bacteria. The article was written based on the statements of the water inspector who claimed that his allegations are based on the analysis of water. In response to this article, the Applicant, in his capacity as a director, held a press conference where he stated that water is safe to use and that the inspector is doing this in order to promote interest of other private companies for water supply and that these are instructions of his political party.
In 2003, the Inspector pressed criminal charges for defamation and court found the Applicant guilty based on this charges, penalising him up to three months of imprisonment (suspended on the condition that he do not commit any crime in next two years). The court explained that the statement that Inspector is doing this in the interest of private companies and on the order of his political party, is clearly defamatory since it is not supported by the facts and it can not be said that it is value judgement. Within the appellate procedure Higher Court of Montenegro confirmed lower court judgement.
Following the independence of Montenegro, in 2006, the Applicant filed a complaint in European Court of Human Rights against the government of Serbia and government of Montenegro, on the ground of violation of Article 10 ECHR.
The European Court of Human Rights unanimously rendered its judgement.
As for the procedural issues, the Court declared the case admissible only in the application against Montenegro, since whole criminal procedure was carried in Montenegro. As such, the application against Serbia was dismissed.
With regards to the merits, the Government declared firstly, that the statement that Applicant made was factual and can be therefore proven. Second, the Applicant abused his right to free expression by trying to focus the discussion towards inspector and present him as corrupted. Further, the Government claimed that based on the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters all information about prevention or sanitation of harm that can be caused to the public health has to be available in public. Finally Government stated that the criminal penalty was proportional to the protection of the legitimate aim.
Applicant submitted his arguments too late, therefore his arguments were not within official records of this case.
At the outset the Court stated that this criminal conviction was clearly a limitation that was prescribed by law and aimed to the protection of legitimate aim, therefore the main issue that has to be determinate was is this limitation necessary in democratic society. In that regard the Court emphasized that “the right to impart, in good faith, information on matters of public interest even where the statements in question involved untrue and damaging statements about private individuals” [para. 37].
The Court found that the Applicant was just responding to the accusations from the article. Since he was the Director of Water Supply and Sewage Systems, it was his duty to do so and inform the public that the water is safe for use. Hence, the statements (even if they are factual statements) are not unfounded, but rather it is considered a rough discussion about the issues of public importance. Further, the Court stressed the fact that the critique the Applicant made was towards the Inspector was with regards to his duty and function, and not the Inspectors private life. Finally the Court considered the penalty (suspended imprisonment up to 3 months) disproportionate and too harsh, given the global trend to forbid penalising defamation with imprisonment.
Given the above, the Court concluded that the criminal conviction of Applicants was not a necessary inference with his freedom of expression under Article 10(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision confirms the long standing position of the European Court of Human Rights that the government’s interference with free speech is specially limited when the speech concerns a matter of public debate, even if it offends or insults a public authority. The Court also emphasized that imprisonment as a penalty for defamation is not proportionate and acceptable sanction.
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 decision is binding upon the parties involved. It also establishes a persuasive precedent for international and regional human rights mechanisms.
Given the fact that generally all international instruments aimed to the protection of human rights have similar provisions, the decisions of the ECtHR even though they do not have direct application of interpretation of these instruments, have significant value as a guidance in interpretation of them, in order to provide the highest level of protection of human rights.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.