Gheorghe-Florin Popescu v. Romania (European Court of Human Rights)

Information Note on the Court’s case-law 247
January 2021

Gheorghe-Florin Popescu v. Romania – 79671/13

Judgment 12.1.2021 [Section IV]

Article 10
Article 10-1
Freedom of expression

Award of damages against a blogger journalist for defamation of another journalist, without relevant and sufficient reasons: violation

Facts – The applicant, a journalist, was ordered to pay approximately EUR 1,100 EUR in compensation for non-pecuniary damage caused to L.B., editor-in-chief of a newspaper and television producer for a local channel, through several articles posted on his blog.

In their reasoning, the courts held that the applicant had accused L.B. of being morally responsible for a murder-suicide without adducing any evidence, and had merely stated in support of his accusations that L.B. had refused to cover the event in question in his newspaper; they also found that he had used vulgar and defamatory language.

Law – Article 10: The national courts had based their analysis primarily on the adverse impact of the contested statements on L.B.’s honour, reputation and dignity, and on the fact that the applicant had been unable to prove his allegations. The Court noted, however, that the courts had failed:

i.  to distinguish between statements of fact and value judgments;

ii.  to analyse certain essential elements, namely that the applicant was a journalist and that the freedom of the press fulfilled a fundamental role in a democratic society;

iii.  to note that the case concerned a conflict between the right to freedom of expression and the right to protection of reputation, requiring these interests to be balanced;

iv.  to investigate whether the applicant’s statements concerned an area of public interest and contributed to a debate of general interest;

v.  to take account of the extent to which the complainant was well-known figure, or of his prior conduct: it had not been accurately established whether L.B. was a “public figure” acting in a public context within the meaning of the Court’s case-law, given his possible involvement in political life or his employment as editor-in-chief and television producer in a media group;

vi.  with regard to the content of the contested articles, to ascertain their purpose: they had merely concluded that the applicant had described L.B. in a negative light that was likely to cause him psychological suffering, concern and distress. In the Court’s opinion, the domestic courts’ reasoning demonstrated a tacit acceptance that respect for private life outweighed respect for the right to freedom of expression in this case;

vii.  with regard to the style of impugned articles, to investigate with sufficient care – given that the satirical nature of the articles had been the main submission in the applicant’s defence – whether or not this was a form of exaggeration or distortion of reality, naturally aimed to provoke and agitate, and not necessarily to be taken seriously;

viii.  to assess the extent to which the contested articles had been disseminated, their accessibility, or even the question of whether, as a well-known blogger or a popular user of social media, the applicant could have enjoyed a certain popularity such as to increase the potential impact of his statements.

With regard to the severity of the penalty imposed, the applicant had submitted that the amount concerned was seven times higher than the minimum monthly salary in Romania, without however indicating his financial situation at the relevant time, nor whether he had encountered difficulties in paying the sum in question. The domestic courts had merely listed certain criteria that were to be applied in establishing the penalty, without however applying them, nor taking account of the consequences of this penalty on the applicant’s financial position. In those circumstances, and in the absence of information regarding the execution of the domestic decision, the Court could not speculate as to the penalty’s impact on the applicant’s situation.

In any event, in the light of the above factors – and in particular the fact that the domestic courts had not correctly balanced all the competing interests, in compliance with the criteria laid down in its case-law  –, the Court considered that the interference with the applicant’s right to freedom of expression had not been justified on grounds which were relevant and sufficient.

Conclusion: violation (unanimously).

Article 41: finding of a violation sufficient just satisfaction for the non-pecuniary damage.

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