Information Note on the Court’s case-law 225
Prunea v. Romania – 47881/11
Judgment 8.1.2019 [Section IV]
Freedom of expression
Defamation for referring to commercial dispute of candidate in parliamentary elections: no violation
Facts – The applicant, a university professor and contributor to various magazines and newspapers, wrote an article about a candidate for one of the national parties in parliamentary elections, referring to a commercial dispute between the candidate and a brokerage company. The applicant’s statements were reproduced in electoral leaflets, which had been distributed in several public places. The candidate brought a successful civil action against the applicant for defamation.
Law – Article 10: The applicant’s criticism had been directed at a politician in respect of whom the limits of acceptable criticism were wider than in the case of a private individual. By standing in the parliamentary elections, the candidate had entered the political scene and inevitably and knowingly laid himself open to close scrutiny. For those reasons, he was required to display a greater degree of tolerance.
Nevertheless, the domestic courts had found that the applicant’s statements had harmed the candidate’s reputation and dignity and should not have been made public via the media, especially because they had referred to private matters. The domestic courts had taken into account the context in which the impugned allegations had been made, namely during an electoral campaign, and had confirmed the fact that they had been of public interest, in so far as they had concerned a public figure. It was relevant that in reaching the conclusion to allow the claim against the applicant, the domestic courts had considered that the latter had not intended to criticise the candidate’s activity as a public figure, but rather to expose publicly a unilateral view of private litigation of a commercial nature involving two private parties. In that respect, they had also held that the applicant had not complied with the minimal requirements of diligence, in the sense of acting in good faith.
The Court agreed with the domestic judicial authorities that the impugned statements had been an attack on the candidate’s reputation reaching the requisite level of seriousness and causing prejudice to the personal enjoyment of his right to respect for his private life under Article 8. The domestic courts had undertaken a satisfactory balancing exercise between the rights at stake, in conformity with the criteria laid down in the Court’s case-law; furthermore, they had convincingly established the need for placing the defendant’s right to protection of reputation above the applicant’s right to freedom of expression. The Court would have required strong reasons to substitute its view for that of the domestic courts and such strong reasons were lacking in this case.
Finally, in the particular circumstances of the applicant’s case, the imposed sanction of EUR 5,000 could not be found to have been disproportionately severe and could not be considered to have been capable of having a “chilling”, dissuasive effect on the applicant’s exercise of his right to freedom of expression.
Conclusion: no violation (five votes to two).