Thursday, 31 July 2008

ECtHR, Moldova, and the press

On Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which is not a court of the European Union but of the Council of Europe, found in a case of the Moldovan national newspaper "Flux" against Moldova that there has been no violation of the right to freedom of expression (article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, ECHR).

Let me first present you the press release on the case and then explain why I am bringing it forward, although there has been no violation of a human right:
Flux v. Moldova (No. 6) (no. 22824/04)

The applicant, Flux, is a newspaper based in Chişinău.
In February 2003 the newspaper published an article about Spiru Haret High School in which, having received an anonymous letter from a group of students’ parents, it alleged that the school’s principal had misappropriated school funds and taken bribes in exchange for enrolling children in his school. The case concerned the applicant newspaper’s complaint about the ensuing civil proceedings brought against it for defamation of the school principal. The applicant newspaper relied on Article 10 (freedom of expression).

The Court noted the serious accusations against the principal and the fact that the newspaper had not carried out any kind of investigation into the matter, including trying to contact the school principal to ask his opinion on the accusations. Moreover, the newspaper had refused the principal’s right to publish a reply. Stressing that the right to freedom of expression did not give newspapers an absolute right to act in an irresponsible manner and make accusations with no factual basis, without even offering the possibility to refute them, the Court found that the applicant newspaper had blatantly disregarded the duties of responsible journalism. It therefore held by four votes to three that there had been no violation of Article 10.
[full ruling]
In fact, this is not the first case that Flux has brought before the Strasbourg court.

In "Flux v. Moldova", the Court held that an interference of public authorities (the leader of the Communist faction in the Moldovan parliament filed a suit against an "defamatory" article) constituted a violation of Article 10. In the case "Flux and Samson v. Moldova" concerning a newspaper article about an ex-Minister of Construction, there has also been found a violation of the freedom of expression.

These latter cases show that in fact the freedom of speech and expression in Moldova is not yet fully guaranteed, especially if (former) public figures are involved. However, that Flux has now lost a case also demonstrates that the freedom of expression is not only a responsibility of public authorities but also of the media itself.

The fact that accusations are made without any proper investigation (even though the accusations could have been correct) and that a reply was denied by the newspaper reveals that not only the Moldovan government has to go quite some way but also that the country's media has to reach a higher level of professionalism in order to live up to the standards set by the European Convention on Human Rights.

I wanted to present this example because usually the Court's rulings are used to strengthen one side of a story. However, taking together cases that are won and lost gives us a picture that is more objective than just looking at single rulings. Reality is usually much more complex than we would like it to be, not only in Moldova.

- And by the way, to be as objective as possible: The decision against Flux was very tight with 4:3 judges.