By HRC Correspondent, April 24 2011
Belgium’s RTBF has finally won a 10-year legal battle against state interference with the broadcaster's right to freedom of expression.
Back in 2001, the company produced a programme examining patients’ rights for its show Au Nom de la Loi which contained allegations of malpractice by a neurosurgeon.
The doctor sought an injunction and the Brussels Court of First Instance granted an interim ban on the programme while it decided on the merits of the case. RTBF lost on appeal and the case was adjourned and still pending when RTBF lodged its complaint with the European Court of Human Rights five years later.
RTBF’s submission to the Court argued violations of Article 10 - the right to freedom of expression, and Article 6(1) - the right of access to the courts. Both were upheld in Strasbourg.
Unsurprisingly, Article 10 has been a mainstay for media companies and the Court has consistently afforded them broad protection.
But Article 10 also covers commercial speech and is open to application by a broader range of companies. The Court made that clear in Autronic v Switzerland in 1990, ruling that protection for freedom of speech "applies to everyone whether natural or legal persons" and includes "profit-making corporate bodies".
Autronic is a Swiss electronics group that at the time specialised in satellite dishes and sought permission to tansmit a Soviet TV programme. The authority said that it needed the "express approval of the Soviet authorities". Autronic complained that the free reception of communications intended for the general public was made subject to the broadcasting State's approval.
Last year, the court upheld 55 complaints of violations of the right to freedom of expression, at least five of which were brought by companies.