By HRC Correspondent, 26 August 2011
Observers of the human rights of companies will have been disappointed that only two cases brought by businesses made it through the Court in all of July and August, but the tabloid-style detail of those cases will have more than made up for it.
Both were brought by media companies and, as might be expected, mainly concern Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to freedom of expression.
Ringier Axel Springer, a Slovak multimedia publisher, alleged a breach of its right to freedom of expression after it was sanctioned for reporting that a Slovak member of parliament, aided by a high-ranking police official, had urinated from a restaurant terrace.
The journalist who reported the incident back in 1999 was sued for libel and the police official (the European case was concerned only with the police official) was awarded compensation. The case in the European Court of Human Rights, filed in 2005, examined the media company's complaint that the Slovak courts had failed to hold to the requirements of Article 10 by insisting that the journalist prove the truthfulness of his report - the Slovak courts censured the journalist for reporting something that he had not himself seen, although he had gone to the restaurant and interviewed the staff.
The European Court found that there had been a violation because although the Slovak courts had weighed up the usual issues of, for example, privacy, they had failed to consider the news reports in light of journalistic ethics and good-faith reporting - the company had acted within its "duties and responsibilities" under Article 10(2).
In the second case, Cypriot media company Sigma Radio Television Ltd claimed it had been unfairly sanctioned and fined by the Cypriot authorities over a number of radio and television broadcasts that the authorities alleged were inappropriate - including what the authorities, in some cases responding to complaints by the public, said was advertising aimed at children, product placement, news programmes that lacked objectivity and discriminatory remarks in an entertainment show. Those remarks were that a particular local town had been "full of dark-skinned Arabs" and that in others all the prostitutes were Russian.
The Cypriot authorities viewed those comments as disrespectful to the towns' residents, and to Arabs, and Russian women and women in general.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the European Court's role as a protector against discrimination, the Court found that there had been no violation of Article 10 in Sigma's case.
Article 10(1) protects freedom of speech, but 10(2) provides for States to impose conditions and penalties "as are prescribed by law”. The Court also gives a margin of appreciation to States in decisions over what is or is not appropriate and the Court found that the censure by Cypriot authorities had not been outside of what is, in Convention terms, "necessary in a democratic society".
The company had included in its complaint alleged breaches of other articles in the Convention, including Article 1 of Protocol 12, a prohibition against discrimination, and Article 6(1) on the right to fair trial, but the Court declared those inadmissible. An alleged violation of Article 1 of Protocol 1, the right to protection of property, was judged admissible, but the court felt its reasoning under Article 10 applied and that there need be no further examination.