Global Freedom of Expression

Wojtas-Kaleta v. Poland

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Press / Newspapers
  • Date of Decision
    October 16, 2009
  • Outcome
    Article 10 Violation
  • Case Number
    20436/02
  • Region & Country
    Poland, Europe and Central Asia
  • Judicial Body
    European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR)
  • Type of Law
    International/Regional Human Rights Law
  • Themes
    Access to Public Information, Defamation / Reputation, Protection of Sources
  • Tags
    Freedom of press, Public Interest

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

Wojtas-Kaleta was a journalist for Telewizja Polska Spółka Akcjna, the Polish public television company. In April 1999, a national newspaper published an article in which Wojtas-Kaleta in her capacity as the President of the Polish Public Television Journalists’ Union expressed skepticism about the television company’s good intentions behind its decision to discontinue two classical music programs. She later signed an open letter addressed to the company’s board of directors, criticizing the television industry for lack of financial support and a coherent policy in protecting the broadcasting of classical music. Soon after, she was reprimanded by the television company for failing to abide its general regulation that required her to protect the company’s good name. She later brought a claim against the company with Wrocław District Court for the reprimand to be withdrawn.  In January 2001, the court dismissed her claim, finding that she engaged in an unlawful manner and that the disciplinary measure was appropriate. Subsequently, the Wroclaw Regional Court upheld the dismissal order.

In October, 2002, Wojtas-Kaleta filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights, alleging that her reprimand impermissibly interfered with her right to freedom of expression protected under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court ruled that the disciplinary measure amounted to an interference with her right to freedom of expression.  Upon balancing her duty of loyalty to her employer with her journalistic right to comment on matters of public interest and taking into account the truthfulness of her comments, the Court found that the television company’s reprimand was not necessary in a democratic society and therefore, violated Wojtas-Kaleta’s right to freedom of expression.


Facts

Wojtas-Kaleta was a journalist for Telewizja Polska Spółka Akcjna, the Polish publish television company. On April 01, 1999, Gazeta Wyborcza, a national newspaper published an article regarding the closure of two classical music programs by the company. The article also reflected the newspaper’s interview with Wojtas-Kaleta in her capacity as the President of the Polish Public Television Journalists’ Union. In the interview, she stated that “[w]e have received the decision very badly, especially as the new programme proposals are not concrete.” [para. 7] She also expressed skepticism about the company’s underlying intentions to discontinue the broadcasting of classical music shows. She said “Director K. stated that the changes were not aimed at getting rid of classical music but, on the contrary, at creating new possibilities for it. I take this statement at face value, although no steps have been taken so far which could confirm these good intentions.” [para. 7]

Wojtas-Kaleta also signed an open letter of 34 representatives of cultural and artistic institutions in the city of Wrocław to the television company’s board of directors. The letter criticized television companies for “lack of money and no stable and coherent policy” of protecting the country’s music industry. [para. 8]

On April 15, 1999, the company reprimanded her for violating its general regulation no. 14 by failing to protect the company’s good name. The company’s director claimed that even though she was interviewed in her capacity as the President of the Polish Public Television Journalists’ Union, her disparaging statements about the company did not fall within the scope of matters concerning the union. The director also claimed that the letter she signed contained untrue information, which was harmful to the company’s reputation.

On May 13, 1999, Wojtas-Kaleta brought a claim against the television company with the Wrocław District Court to withdraw the imposed reprimand.  The court dismissed her claim, reasoning that the discussion on the company’s closure of music programs was not a matter that the trade union could comment and that she breached her duty of loyalty to the company. On April 10, 2001, the Wroclaw Regional Court upheld the dismissal order.

Subsequently on October 06, 2001, Wojtas-Kaleta filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights, alleging that the disciplinary measure amounted to the government of Poland’s unjustified interference with her right to freedom of expression.


Decision Overview

Lawrence Early delivered the opinion of the European Court of Human Rights.

The main issue before the Court was whether the imposition of the reprimand violated Wojtas-Kaleta’s right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Wojtas-Kaleta contended that as a journalist, she had the right and obligation to comment on matters of public interest and that the discussion on public television programs “indubitably” concerns the public’s right to effective communication and access to information. She claimed that the domestic courts of Poland “had curtailed her freedom of expression, as they had regarded her merely as an employee and had referred only to her obligations as an employee, while disregarding her professional obligations as a journalist.” [para. 30]

The government, on the other hand, argued that by merely participating in the debate, she had breached her duty of loyalty as an employee of a public company. It argued that it was not even necessary to balance Wojtas-Kaleta’s employment obligations against he role as a journalist.

In reaching its decision, the Court considered whether and how the limits of loyalty of journalists working for public broadcasting companies should be delineated and what restrictions could be imposed on them in public debates. Wojtas-Kaleta’s combined roles as a trade union representative and a journalist required the Court to determine whether the disciplinary measure against her was “necessary in a democratic society.”

The Court first ruled that the imposition of the reprimand amounted to “an interference with her right to freedom of expression, as guaranteed by Article 10 § 1 of the Convention.” [para. 44] It then noted that the public television company issued the disciplinary order based on a very broad interpretation of the duty of loyalty by acting on the assumption that her mere participation in a public debate, criticizing its program policies was a sufficient ground in concluding that she acted to the company’s detriment.

The Court also noted that the domestic courts of Poland failed to take into consideration Wojtas-Kaleta’s argument that her comments concerned a matter of public interest. According to the Court, “they did not examine whether and how the subject matter of the applicant’s comments and the context in which they had been made could have affected the permissible scope of her freedom of expression. Such an approach would have been compatible with the Convention standards.” [para. 49]

The Court also considered the undisputed fact that Wojtas-Kaleta’s comments had a sufficient factual basis without any personal accusations and that her good faith was not in dispute. The Court found that these factors should be weighed in determining whether the applicant had breached her duty of loyalty and balancing these factors against the suppression of the freedom of expression.  It concluded that the Polish government’s interference by issuing the reprimand was not “necessary in a democratic society.” [para. 25]

Accordingly, the Court found that the government of Poland violated Wojtas-Kaleta’s right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

 

 


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Expands Expression

The decision expands expression by protecting a public employee’s ability to comment on a matter of public interest while acting in his or her role as a journalist.

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