ECHR – CASE OF EDITORIAL BOARD OF PRAVOYE DELO AND SHTEKEL v. UKRAINE

L’ordinamento deve prevedere adeguate garanzie per i giornalisti che utilizzano materiale diffuso su internet; in difetto, la Corte Europea per i diritti umani non ha ritenuto conformeall’art. 10 della Convenzione per la protezione dei diritti umani e delle libertà fondamentalila condanna per diffamazione di alcuni giornalisti che avevano pubblicato una lettera anonima diffamatoria in precedenza già diffusa su internet.

FIFTH SECTION

CASE OF EDITORIAL BOARD OF PRAVOYE DELO AND SHTEKEL v. UKRAINE

(Application no. 33014/05)

JUDGMENT

STRASBOURG

5 May 2011

FINAL

05/08/2011

This judgment has become final under Article 44 § 2 of the Convention. It may be subject to editorial revision.

In the case of Editorial Board of Pravoye Delo and Shtekel v. Ukraine,

The  European  Court  of  Human  Rights  (Fifth  Section),  sitting  as  a Chamber composed of:

  Dean Spielmann, President,

  Elisabet Fura,

  Karel Jungwiert,

  Mark Villiger,

  Isabelle Berro-Lefèvre,

  Ann Power,

  Ganna Yudkivska, judges,

  and Claudia Westerdiek, Section Registrar,

Having deliberated in private on 5 April 2011,

Delivers the following judgment, which was adopted on that date:

PROCEDURE

1.  The case originated in an application (no. 33014/05) against Ukraine lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of  Human  Rights  and  Fundamental  Freedoms  (“the  Convention”)  by  the editorial board of the newspaper Pravoye Delo (“the first applicant”) and a Ukrainian national Mr Leonid Isaakovich Shtekel (“the second applicant”) on 22 August 2005.

2.  The  applicants  were  represented  before  the  Court  by Ms L. V. Opryshko,  a  lawyer  practising  in  Kyiv.  The  Ukrainian Government  (“the  Government”)  were  represented  by  their  Agent, Mr Y. Zaytsev, of the Ministry of Justice.

3.  On 13 October 2009 the President of the Fifth Section decided to give notice of the application to the Government. It was also decided to examine the merits of the application at the same time as its admissibility (Article 29 § 1).

THE FACTS

I.  THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE

4.  The first applicant is the editorial board of Pravoye Delo, a newspaper officially  registered  in  Odessa  in  May  2000.  The  second  applicant  is  the editor-in-chief of Pravoye Delo. He lives in Odessa.

5.  At the material time Pravoye Delo was a local newspaper published three times a week with a circulation of 3,000 copies. It published reports and material on political and social matters in Ukraine and, in particular, the Odessa Region. Due to lack of funds, the newspaper often reprinted articles and  other  material  obtained  from  various  public  sources,  including  the Internet.

6.  On 19 September 2003 Pravoye Delo published an anonymous letter, allegedly written by an employee of the Security Service of Ukraine, which the  second  applicant’s  colleague,  Ms  I.,  had  downloaded  from  a  news website. The letter contained allegations that senior officials of the Odessa Regional Department of the Security Service had been engaging in unlawful and  corrupt  activities,  and  in  particular  that  they  had  connections  with members of organised criminal groups. One of the paragraphs of the letter read as follows:

“… The Deputy Head of [the Odessa Regional Department of the Security Service] [I.  T.],  a  close  friend  and  assistant  of  the  Head  of  the  Department  P.,  established ‘business’ contacts with [the organised criminal group] of [A. A.] … A member of [the organised criminal group] G. T., an agent of [A. A.], who is in charge of the main areas of activities of the gang [is] a coordinator and sponsor of murders, [he] meets with [I. T.] and resolves financial issues for the top officials of the Department of [the Security Service] in the Odessa Region …”

7.  The  letter  was  followed  by  these  comments,  prepared  by  Ms I.  on behalf of the editorial board:

“When  publishing  this  letter  without  the  knowledge  and  consent  of  the  editor-in-chief,  I  understand  that  I  may  not  only  face  trouble  …  but  I  may  also  create problems  for  the  newspaper.  Because,  if  this  letter  is  [misinformation],  then  [the media], in which it appears may be endangered. On the other hand, if this letter is genuine,  then  its  author  faces  a  higher  risk.  Besides,  given  that  this  anonimka [anonymous letter] has already been published on the Odessa website Vlasti.net (to which we refer, in accordance with their requirement), we have the blessing of God [to publish it]. We are proceeding on the understanding that, in accordance with the Act  on  Democratic  Civil  Control  over  the  Military  Organisation  and  Law-Enforcement Organs of the State, we are carrying out civil control and, under section 29  of  the  Act,  we  would  like  to  receive  open  information  concerning  the  facts described in this letter from the relevant authorities. Moreover, [it is to be noted] that the  Department  [of  the  Security  Service]  in  the  Odessa  Region  did  not  react  to  an analogous  publication  in  the  Top  Secret  [newspaper]  …  I  remind  [you]  that  the [Pravoye Delo] newspaper … is wide open for letters in reply and comments from all interested agencies.”

8.  In October 2003 G. T., who lived in Odessa at the time and was the President  of  the  Ukraine  National  Thai  Boxing  Federation,  brought defamation proceedings in the Prymorskiy District Court of Odessa against the applicants. G. T. alleged that the information in the 19 September 2003 issue  of  Pravoye  Delo  concerned  him,  and  that  it  was  untrue  and  had damaged  his  dignity  and  reputation.  He  asked  the  court  to  order  the applicants  to  publish  a  retraction  and  an  apology  and  to  pay  him compensation  for  non-pecuniary  damage  in  the  amount  of  200,000 Ukrainian hryvnias (UAH).

9.  The  applicants  first  argued  before  the  court  that  they  were  not responsible  for  the  accuracy  of  the  information  contained  in  the  material that  they  had  published,  as  they  had  reproduced  material  published elsewhere without making any modifications. The publication contained a reference  to  the  source  of  the  material  and  was  followed  by  comments explaining  the  editors’  position  regarding  the  material  and  inviting comments  from  the  persons  and  bodies  concerned.  The  applicants  also submitted that if the court were to award G. T. the amount of compensation he had claimed, the newspaper would become insolvent and would have to close.

10.  Subsequently, at a hearing on 24 April 2004, the second applicant stated that the article was not about the claimant and that its wording did not necessarily establish that it was a particular “G. T.” who was being referred to.

11.  On 7 May 2004 the court ruled against the applicants. It found that the information at issue did concern the claimant, who was a public figure involved  in  public  activities  in  the  Odessa  Region  and  had  represented Ukraine at sports events abroad in his capacity as President of the Ukraine National Thai Boxing Federation. In that context, the court noted that this had not been contested by the applicants in their initial submissions and that the publication was about the activities of the Security Service in the Odessa Region. The court further held that the content was defamatory and that the applicants had failed to prove that it was true. It found no grounds on which to exempt the applicants from civil liability under section 42 of the Press Act, as the Internet site to which they had referred was not printed media registered pursuant to section 32 of the Press Act.

12.  The  court  ordered  the  first  applicant  to  publish  a  retraction  of  the following content of the publication:

“… A member of [the organised criminal group], G. T., an agent of [A. A.], who is in charge of the main areas of activities of the gang [is] a coordinator and sponsor of murders, [he] meets with [I. T.] and resolves financial issues for the top officials of the Department [of the Security Service] in the Odessa Region …”

13.  The court further ordered the second applicant to publish an official apology in the newspaper.

14.  In  determining  the  amount  of  compensation  to  be  paid  to  the claimant,  the  court  considered  the  submissions  of  the  latter  and  the information  concerning  the  financial  situation  of  the  newspaper.  It  noted that  its  gross  annual  income  was  about  UAH 22,000  and  found  it reasonable  to  order  the  applicants  jointly  to  pay  G.  T.  UAH 15,000  for non-pecuniary damage. The applicants were also ordered to pay to the State Budget UAH 750 in court fees.

15.  The applicants appealed. They maintained the submissions they had made  before  the  first-instance  court  and  also  contended  that  the  editorial board  had  not  been  registered  as  a  legal  entity  pursuant  to  the  relevant regulations on registration of the media and that the second applicant had not been appointed as editor-in-chief in accordance with the law. Thus, in their view, they could not take part in the proceedings.

16.  The applicants further argued that invoking their civil liability was contrary to section 41 of the Press Act and section 17  of the Act on State Support  of  Mass  Media  and  Social  Protection  of  Journalists,  stating  that they had not intended to defame G. T. and that, by publishing the material, they  had  wished  to  promote  public  discussion  of  the  issues  raised  in  that material which were of significant public interest. According to them, it was their duty to disseminate the material and the public had a right to receive it.

17.  The second applicant also submitted that he had not authorised the publication of the material at issue and that the legislation did not provide for an obligation to apologise as a sanction for defamation.

18.  On  14  September  2004  and  24  February  2005,  respectively,  the Odessa  Regional  Court  of  Appeal  and  the  Supreme  Court  rejected  the applicants’ appeals and upheld the judgment of the first-instance court.

19.  On  3  July  2006  the  applicants  and  G.  T.  concluded  a  friendly-settlement  agreement,  pursuant  to  which  the  latter  waived  any  claim  in respect of the amount of compensation awarded in the judgment of 7 May 2004.  The  applicants,  for  their  part,  undertook  to  cover  all  the  costs  and expenses relating to the court proceedings and to publish in Pravoye Delo promotional and informational materials at  G. T.’s request, the volume of which was limited to the amount of compensation under the judgment.

20.  In 2008 the applicants discontinued publishing Pravoye Delo.

II.  RELEVANT DOMESTIC LAW AND PRACTICE

A.  Constitution of Ukraine of 28 June 1996

21.  Relevant extracts from the Constitution read as follows:

Article 32

“…  Everyone  is  guaranteed  judicial  protection  of  the  right  to  rectify  incorrect information  about  himself  or  herself and  members  of  his  or  her  family,  and  of  the right  to  demand  that  any  type  of  information  be  rectified,  and  also  the  right  to compensation  for  pecuniary  and  non-pecuniary  damage  inflicted  by  the  collection, storage, use and dissemination of such incorrect information.”

Article 34

“Everyone is guaranteed the right to freedom of thought and speech, and to the free expression of his or her views and beliefs.

Everyone has the right to freely collect, store, use and disseminate information by oral, written or other means of his or her choice.

The  exercise  of  these  rights  may  be  restricted  by  law  in  the  interests  of  national security,  territorial  indivisibility  or  public  order,  with  the  purpose  of  preventing disturbances or crime, protecting the health of the population, the reputation or rights of other persons, preventing the publication of information received confidentially, or maintaining the authority and impartiality of justice.”

B.  Civil Code of 1963 (repealed with effect from 1 January 2004)

22.  Relevant extracts from the Civil Code read as follows:

Article 7. Protection of honour, dignity and reputation

“A  citizen  or  an  organisation  shall  be  entitled  to  demand  in  a  court  of  law  that material be retracted if it is not true or is set out untruthfully, degrades their honour and dignity or reputation, or causes damage to their interests, unless the person who disseminated the information proves that it is true …

A citizen or an organisation concerning whom material has been disseminated that is untrue and damages their interests, honour, dignity or reputation shall be entitled to request compensation for pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage as well as a retraction of such information …”

C.  Civil Code of 2003 (in force from 1 January 2004)

23.  The provisions of the Civil Code of 2003 pertinent to the case read as follows:

Article 16

Judicial protection of civil rights and interests

1.  Everyone has the right to apply to a court of law for the protection of his or her … rights and interests.

2.  The means of protection of civil rights and interests may include:

1)  recognition of the right;

2)  declaration of nullity of an act;

3)  cessation of actions violating the right;

4)  restoration of the situation which existed prior to the violation;

5)  specific performance of an obligation;

6)  modification of legal relations;

7)  discontinuance of legal relations;

8)  compensation for [pecuniary] damage …;

9)  compensation for [non-pecuniary] damage;

10)  declaration of unlawfulness of a decision or action or  of inactivity  of a State body;

The court may give protection to the civil right or interest by other means envisaged by a contract or law.

…”

Article 277

Retraction of untrue information

“1.  A physical person whose non-pecuniary rights have been infringed as a result of dissemination of untrue information about him or her and/or members of his or her family shall have the right to reply and [the right to] the retraction of that information.

3.  Negative information disseminated about a person shall be considered untrue if the person who disseminated it does not prove the contrary.

4.  Untrue information shall be retracted by the person who disseminated it …

5.  If the untrue information  is contained in a document which has been accepted (issued) by a legal entity, that document shall be recalled.

6.  A physical person whose non-pecuniary rights have been infringed in printed or other mass media shall have the right to reply and also [the right to] the retraction of the untrue information in the same mass media, in the manner envisaged by law …

Untrue information shall be retracted irrespective of whether or not the person who disseminated it is guilty.

7.  Untrue  information  shall  be  retracted  in  the  same  manner  as  it  was disseminated.”

D.  Information Act of 2 October 1992

24.  Relevant extracts from the Information Act provided, as worded at the material time, as follows:

Section 20. Mass media

“Printed mass media are periodical prints (press) – newspapers, magazines, bulletins – and occasional prints with a set circulation.

Audiovisual mass media are radio, television, cinema, audio, video recordings and so on.

The procedure of establishing … of particular media shall be determined by the laws concerning such media.”

Section 47. Liability for infringement of the legislation on information

“…

Liability for infringement of the legislation on information shall be borne by persons

responsible for the following infringements:

dissemination of untrue information that defames the honour and dignity of a person

…”

Section 49. Compensation for pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage

“If  physical  or  legal  persons  have  suffered  pecuniary  or  non-pecuniary  damage caused  by  an  offence  committed  by  an  entity  engaged  in  informational  activities, those responsible [for the offence] shall compensate [for the damage] voluntarily  or pursuant to a court decision …”

E.  Printed Mass Media (Press) Act of 16 November 1992

25.  Relevant extracts from the Press Act provide:

Section 1. Printed mass media (press) in Ukraine

“Printed mass media (press) in Ukraine, as referred to in this Act, are [defined as] periodical and continuing publications issued under a permanent name [at least] once a year pursuant to a certificate of State registration …”

Section 7. Entities engaged in printed mass media activities

“Entities engaged in printed mass media activities shall include [their] founders (or co-founders), editors (or editors-in-chief), editorial boards …”

Section 21. Editorial board of the printed mass media

“The  editorial  board  …  shall  prepare  and  issue  printed  mass  media  under  the instructions of its founder (or co-founders).

The  editorial  board  shall  act  on  the  basis  of  its  organisational  charter  and  shall implement  the  programme  of  the  printed  mass  media  approved  by  its  founder  (or co-founders).

The editorial board … shall acquire the status of a legal entity from the day of State registration, which shall be carried out in accordance with the legislation of Ukraine.”

Section 21. Editor (editor-in-chief) of the printed mass media

“The editor (or editor-in-chief) … shall be the head of the editorial board, authorised by the founder (or co-founders).

The editor (or editor-in-chief) … shall manage the editorial board’s activities within his competence, as envisaged by its organisational charter, shall represent the editorial board in its relations with the founder (or co-founders), the publisher, authors, State organs, associations of citizens, and individual citizens, as well as before the courts and arbitration tribunals and shall be responsible for compliance with the [legislative] requirements as to the activities of the printed media, its editorial board …”

Section 26. State registration of the printed mass media

“…  All  printed  mass  media  in  Ukraine  shall  be  subject  to  State  registration, irrespective of the area of its dissemination, circulation and the manner of its creation …”

Section 32. Publishing data

“Every issue of printed mass media shall contain the following publishing data:

(1) name of publication …

Distribution of [publications] without publishing data shall be prohibited.”

Section 37. Retraction of information

“Citizens, legal entities and State organs, and their legal representatives shall have the  right  to  demand  that  the  editorial  board  of  the  printed  mass  media  publish  a retraction  of information disseminated about them  which is untrue or defames their honour and dignity.

If the editorial board does not have any evidence that the content published by it is true, it must, if requested by the claimant, publish a retraction of such information in the next issue of the printed mass media in question or publish the retraction on its own initiative …”

Section 41. Grounds for liability

“Editorial boards, founders, publishers, distributors, State organs, organisations and associations  of  citizens  shall  be  liable  for  infringements  of  the  legislation  on  the printed mass media.

Infringements of Ukrainian legislation on the printed mass media are:

1)  violations envisaged by section 47 of the Information Act …

For  such  an  infringement  the  guilty  party  shall  incur  disciplinary,  civil, administrative  or  criminal  liability  in  accordance  with  the  current  legislation  of Ukraine.

The journalist … editor (or editor-in-chief) or other persons with whose permission the material which violates this Act has been published shall bear the same liability for abuse of the freedom of the printed mass media as the authors of that material.”

Section 42. Exemption from liability

“The editorial board and journalists are not liable for the publication of material that is untrue, defames the honour and dignity of citizens and organisations, infringes the rights  and  lawful  interests  of  citizens,  or  constitutes  abuse  of  the  freedom  of  the printed mass media and the rights of journalists if

1)  the  information  has  been  received  from  news  agencies  or  from  the  founder (co-founders) [of the media source];

2)  the information is contained in a reply given in accordance with the Information Act to a request for access to official documents and to a request for written or oral information;

3)  the information is a verbatim reproduction of official speeches of the officials of State organs, organisations and associations of citizens;

4)  the information is a verbatim reproduction of material published by other printed mass media and contains a reference to [the latter];

5)  the information contains secrets that are specifically protected by law, where the journalist has not obtained this information unlawfully.”

F.  State Support of Mass Media and Social Protection of Journalists

Act of 23 September 1997

26.  Relevant extracts from the Act provide:

Section 17. Liability for trespass or other actions against the life and health of a journalist and a journalist’s liability for non-pecuniary damage caused by him

“… In the process of consideration by a court of a dispute concerning non-pecuniary damage  between  a  journalist  or  mass  media,  as  a  defendant  party,  and  a  political party, electoral bloc, [or] an office holder (or office holders), as a claimant, the court may award compensation in respect of non-pecuniary damage only if the journalist or officials  of  the  media  [acted]  intentionally.  The  court  shall  take  into  account  the outcome  of  the  use  by  the  claimant  of  extrajudicial,  in  particular  pre-trial, opportunities for retraction of untrue material, defending his honour and dignity and reputation, and settlement of the entire dispute. Having regard to the circumstances, the court may refuse compensation in respect of non-pecuniary damage.

The intention of the journalist and/or official of the media means his or their stance with regard to dissemination of information where the journalist and/or official of the media  are  aware  that  the  information  is  untrue  and  have  anticipated  its  socially injurious consequences.

The journalist and/or the mass media shall not incur liability for dissemination of untrue information if the court establishes that the journalist acted in good faith and checked the information.”

G.  Resolution  of  the  Plenary  Supreme  Court  of  Ukraine  of 27 February  2009  on  judicial  practice  in  cases  concerning  the protection of the honour and dignity of a physical person, and of the reputation of a physical person and legal entity

27.  The  relevant  extracts  from  the  Resolution  of  the  Plenary  Supreme Court read as follows:

“26. Under Article 19 of the Constitution of Ukraine, the legal order in Ukraine is based on [the principle] according to which no one shall be forced to do what is not envisaged by the legislation. In turn, Article 34, paragraph 1, of the Constitution of Ukraine guarantees everyone the right to freedom of thought and speech, and to the free expression of his or her views and beliefs.

A court has no power to oblige a respondent to apologise to a claimant … as a forced apology is not envisaged by Articles 16 [and] 277 [of the Civil Code of 2003] as a means of judicial protection of honour, dignity, [and] business reputation [in case of] dissemination of untrue information.”

H.  Judicial  practice  of  the  Supreme  Court  in  cases  concerning  the application of Articles 16 and 277 of the Civil Code of 2003

28.  The  Supreme  Court  confirmed  the  Plenary’s  approach  in  a defamation  case,  having  quashed  the  lower  courts’  decisions  by  which  a respondent  was  ordered,  inter  alia,  to  apologise  as  legally  unfounded.  In particular,  the  relevant  extract  of  the  Supreme  Court’s  judgment  (dated 17 June 2009) reads as follows:

“…

The court[s] are not entitled to oblige a respondent to apologise to a claimant in one form or another, as Articles 16 [and] 277 [of the Civil Code of 2003] do not provide for  a  forced  apology  as  a  means  of  judicial  protection  of  honour,  dignity,  [and] business reputation [in case of] dissemination of untrue information; compulsion of a person  to  change  his/her  beliefs  is  an  interference  with  the  freedom  of  speech  and expression  guaranteed  by  the  Constitution  of  Ukraine  and  Article  10  of  the Convention …”

II.  RELEVANT  COUNCIL  OF  EUROPE  AND  INTERNATIONAL MATERIAL

A.  Recommendation CM/Rec(2007)16 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on measures to promote the public service value of the Internet

29.  At  their  1010th  meeting  on  7  November  2007  the  Ministers’ Deputies  considered  essential  aspects  of  the  use  of  new  information  and communication technologies and services, in particular the Internet, in the context  of  protection  and  promotion  of  human  rights  and  fundamental freedoms. They acknowledged the increasingly important role the Internet was playing in providing diverse sources of information to the public and people’s significant reliance on the Internet as a tool for communication.

30.  It  was  noted  however  that  the  Internet  could,  on  the  one  hand, significantly  enhance  the  exercise  of  human  rights  and  fundamental freedoms,  such  as  the  right  to  freedom  of  expression,  while,  on  the  other hand, the Internet might adversely affect other rights, freedoms and values, such as the respect for private life and secrecy of correspondence and for the dignity of human beings.

31.  The Ministers’ Deputies adopted recommendations to the Council of Europe’s member states with regard to the governance of the Internet. These included recommendation to elaborate a clear legal framework delineating the boundaries of the roles and responsibilities of all key stakeholders in the field of new information and communication technologies and to encourage the private sector to develop open and transparent self- and co-regulation on the basis of which key actors in this field could be held accountable.

B.  Joint Declaration by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion  and  Expression,  the  OSCE  Representative  on  Freedom of  the  Media  and  the  OAS  Special  Rapporteur  on  Freedom  of Expression, adopted on 21 December 2005

32.  The growing importance of the Internet as a vehicle for facilitating in practice the free flow of information and ideas was also recognised in the Joint  Declaration  issued  by  Mr  A. Ligabo,  Mr  M.  Haraszti  and Mr E. Bertoni. They stressed the need for strict application of international guarantees of freedom of expression to the Internet. In that context, it was stated that no one should be liable for content on the Internet of which they were not the author, unless they had either adopted that content as their own or refused to obey a court order to remove that content.

THE LAW

I.  ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 10 OF THE CONVENTION

33.  The applicants complained that their right to freedom of expression had been violated in that the courts had allowed  G. T.’s claim concerning content published in Pravoye Delo on 19 September 2003. They stated that the interference had neither been in accordance with the law nor necessary in  a  democratic  society.  The  applicants  relied  on  Article  10  of  the Convention, which reads as follows:

“1.  Everyone  has  the  right  to  freedom  of  expression.  This  right  shall  include freedom  to  hold  opinions  and  to  receive  and  impart  information  and  ideas  without interference  by  public  authority  and  regardless  of  frontiers.  This  Article  shall  not prevent  States  from  requiring  the  licensing  of  broadcasting,  television  or  cinema enterprises.

2.  The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may  be  subject  to  such  formalities,  conditions,  restrictions  or  penalties  as  are prescribed  by  law  and  are  necessary  in  a  democratic  society,  in  the  interests  of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

A.  Admissibility

34.  The Government submitted that the applicants could not claim to be victims of a violation  of Article 10 of the Convention, as the interference with their right to freedom of expression had been based on the decisions of the domestic courts. The applicants did not complain under Article 6 § 1 of the Convention that the impugned court proceedings had been unfair, and there  had  been  no  irregularities  in  those  proceedings  and  the  Court  had limited jurisdiction regarding the assessment of facts and the application of law by domestic courts. On these grounds, they invited the Court to declare the  application  incompatible  ratione  personae  with  the  provisions  of  the Convention.

35.  The applicants disagreed.

36.  The  Court  considers  that  the  Government’s  objection  is  closely linked to the substance of the applicants’ complaints under Article 10 of the Convention and that it must therefore be joined to the merits.

37.  The  Court  further  notes  that  the  application  is  not  manifestly ill-founded  within  the  meaning  of  Article  35  §  3  of  the  Convention.  It further  notes  that  it  is  not  inadmissible  on  any  other  grounds.  It  must therefore be declared admissible.

B.  Merits

1.  Submissions of the parties

(a)  The applicants

38.  The  applicants  argued  that  the  domestic  legislation  concerning  the liability of the press for defamation lacked clarity and foreseeability and that the  domestic  courts  had  disregarded  the  relevant  legislative  guarantees against  punishment  for  unverified  statements  made  by  journalists.  They submitted that the courts had not taken into account the fact that they had not disseminated information about G. T., that the second applicant had not given  his  permission  for  the  publication  of  the  material,  that  they  had sufficiently distanced themselves from the publication, and that G. T. had not used the opportunity of asking the editorial board for a retraction before bringing defamation proceedings in the courts.

39.  The  second  applicant  also  contended  that  Ukrainian  law  did  not provide for an obligation to apologise as a sanction for defamation.

40.  The  applicants  further  submitted  that  they  had  disseminated  the material, which had already been published on the Internet, with a view to promoting further discussion of the important political issues raised in the material. They stated that the amount of compensation which they had been required  to  pay  had  been  too  high  given  the  annual  income  of  the newspaper,  and  had  placed  a  disproportionate  burden  on  them.  In  this context,  they  stated  that  they  had  had  to  discontinue  publishing  Pravoye Delo.

(b)  The Government

41.  The Government submitted that the interference with the applicants’ right to freedom of expression had been lawful in that it had been based on the  clear,  accessible  and  foreseeable  provisions  of  the  domestic  law, namely,  on  Article  7  of  the  Civil  Code  of  1963,  section  47  of  the Information Act of 2 October 1992, and sections 1, 32 and 42 of the Printed Mass Media (Press) Act of 16 November 1992, as applied by the national courts in the applicants’ case.

42.  The  Government  further  submitted  that  the  interference  had  been aimed at protecting the honour, dignity and business reputation of a private person  whose  rights  had  been  prejudiced  by  the  publication  at  issue.

According to  them, this had been a legitimate aim within the meaning of Article 10 § 2 of the Convention, which the applicants did not deny.

43.  The Government argued that the publication had contained serious factual  allegations  directed  against  a  prominent  public  figure  who  had contributed  to  the  development  of  sports  in  Ukraine.  The  applicants  had failed  to  prove  those  allegations.  The  fact  that  they  had  reproduced  the material obtained from a website had not been sufficient to relieve them of that obligation, as the legal status of information derived from the Internet had  not  been  determined  under  the  domestic  law.  Therefore,  the Government stated that the interference had been necessary in the present case.

44.  They  also  submitted  that  the  applicants  had  not  actually  been required to pay the compensation awarded by the courts to the claimant, as they had settled the matter at the stage of enforcement of the judgment of 7 May 2004. According to the Government, it had not been proved by the applicants that they had discontinued publishing their newspaper because of the interference at issue.

45.  Relying  on  the  Court’s  decision  on  admissibility  in  the  case  of Vitrenko and Others v. Ukraine ((dec.), no. 23510/02, 16 December 2008), the Government contended that the court’s order to apologise had not been contrary to the principles embodied in Article 10 of the Convention.

46.  On  the  above  grounds,  the  Government  stated  that  the  impugned interference had not been disproportionate.

2.  The Court’s assessment

(a)  Whether there was an interference with the right to freedom of expression

47.  The Court observes that the publication at issue involved defamatory statements of fact. According to the findings of the civil courts, it was stated that  a  public  figure,  the  President  of  the  Ukraine  National  Thai  Boxing Federation,  was  a  member  of  an  organised  criminal  group  and  “a coordinator and sponsor of murders”. The applicants had failed to show that those  statements  were  true  and  the  courts  ordered  them  to  publish  a retraction  and  apology  and  to  compensate  the  person  concerned  for  the non-pecuniary damage caused by the publication. 48.  The  Court  considers  that  the  courts’  decisions  constituted  an interference with the applicants’ right to freedom of expression.

49.  The  Court  reiterates  that  its  task  in  exercising  its  supervisory function  under  Article 10  of  the  Convention  is  to  look  at  the  interference complained  of  in  the  light  of  the  case  as  a  whole  and,  in  particular,  to determine whether the reasons adduced by the national authorities to justify it  are  relevant  and  sufficient  (see,  among  many  other  authorities,  Fressoz and  Roire  v.  France  [GC],  no.  29183/95,  §  45,  ECHR  1999-I).  This inevitably  entails  a  review  of  the  decisions  taken  by  the  courts  at  the domestic  level,  irrespective  of  whether  any  complaints  have  been  raised concerning  the  courts’  compliance  with  the  procedural  guarantees  under Article  6  of  the  Convention.  Therefore,  the  Court  dismisses  the Government’s objection as to the applicants’ victim status.

50.  The Court will now examine whether the interference was justified under Article 10 § 2 of the Convention.

(b)  Whether the interference was prescribed by law

51.  The  Court  notes  that  the  first  and  most  important  requirement  of Article 10 of the Convention is that any interference by a public authority with the exercise of the freedom of expression should be lawful: the  first sentence of the second paragraph essentially envisages that any restriction on  expression  must  be  “prescribed  by  law”.  In  order  to  comply  with  this requirement, interference does not merely have to have a basis in domestic law. The law itself must correspond to certain requirements of “quality”. In particular, a norm cannot be regarded as a “law” unless it is formulated with sufficient precision to enable the citizen to regulate his conduct: he must be able – if need be with appropriate advice  – to foresee, to a degree that is reasonable  in  the  circumstances,  the  consequences  which  a  given  action may  entail  (see,  for  example,  Lindon,  Otchakovsky-Laurens  and  July v. France [GC], nos. 21279/02 and 36448/02, § 41, ECHR 2007-XI).

52.  The  degree  of  precision  depends  to  a  considerable  extent  on  the content of the instrument at issue, the field it is designed to cover, and the number and status of those to whom it is addressed (see Groppera Radio AG and Others v. Switzerland, 28 March 1990, § 68, Series A no. 173). The notion of foreseeability applies not only to a course of conduct, of which an applicant should be reasonably able to foresee the consequences, but also to “formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties”, which may be attached to such  conduct,  if  found  to  be  in  breach  of  the  national  laws  (see,  mutatis mutandis, Kafkaris v. Cyprus [GC], no. 21906/04, § 140, ECHR 2008-…).

53.  Turning to the circumstances of the present case, the Court observes that the applicants’ submissions regarding the question of the lawfulness of the interference essentially concern two specific issues, namely, the alleged lack  of  clarity  and  foreseeability  of  the  relevant  legislative  provisions concerning journalists’ specific safeguards and the alleged absence of legal grounds for an obligation to apologise in cases of defamation.

(i)  Measures envisaged by Ukrainian law in cases of defamation

54.  As  regards  the  latter  issue,  the  Court  observes  that  Ukrainian  law provides that, in cases of defamation, injured parties are entitled to demand a  retraction  of  untrue  and  defamatory  statements  and  compensation  for damage. Both measures were applied in the applicants’ case. However, in addition  to  those  measures,  the  courts  ordered  the  second  applicant  to publish an official apology in the newspaper. The Court observes that such a measure was not specifically provided for in the domestic law.

55.  The Court has already dealt with a similar situation in a case against Russia. In that case it was prepared to accept that the interpretation by the domestic  courts  of  the  notions  of  retraction  or  rectification  under  the relevant  legislation  as  possibly  including  an  apology  was  not  such  as  to render  the  impugned  interference  unlawful  within  the  meaning  of  the Convention (see Kazakov v. Russia, no. 1758/02, § 24, 18 December 2008).

56.  However,  in  contrast  to  the  aforementioned  case,  the  present  case contains no evidence or, at the least, a persuasive argument that Ukrainian courts  were  inclined  to  give  such  a  broad  interpretation  to  the  legal provisions  concerning  the  measures  applicable  in  cases  of  defamation  or that that was their general approach in such cases.

57.  The  Court  further  observes  that,  despite  the  second  applicant’s specific  and  pertinent  complaints  in  that  connection,  the  domestic  courts failed to give any explanation for the obvious departure from the relevant domestic rules (see paragraph 17 above). The Government’s submissions in that regard did not clarify the issue either.

58.  As can be seen from the relevant domestic judicial practice, though subsequent to the events at issue, imposition of an obligation to apologise in defamation cases may run counter to the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression (see paragraphs 27-28 above).

59.  In these circumstances, the Court finds that the court’s order to the second  applicant  to  apologise  was  not  prescribed  by  law  and  that accordingly there  has been a violation of Article  10 of the Convention in that regard.

(ii)  Journalists’ specific safeguards in Ukrainian law

60.  The  Court  observes  that  the  publication  at  issue  was  a  verbatim reproduction  of  material  downloaded  from  a  publicly  accessible  internet newspaper.  It  contained  a  reference  to  the  source  of  the  material  and comments  by  the  editorial  board,  in  which  they  formally  distanced themselves from the content of the material.

61.  Ukrainian  law  –  specifically  the  Press  Act  –  exempts  journalists from  civil  liability  for  verbatim  reproduction  of  material  published  in  the press  (see  paragraph  25  above).  The  Court  notes  that  this  provision generally  conforms  to  its  approach  to  journalists’  freedom  to  disseminate statements  made  by  others  (see,  for  instance,  Jersild  v. Denmark,  23 September  1994,  §  35,  Series  A  no.  298,  and  Thoma  v. Luxembourg,  no. 38432/97, § 62, ECHR 2001-III).

62.  However,  according  to  the  domestic  courts,  no  such  immunity existed  for  journalists  reproducing  material  from  internet  sources  not registered pursuant to the Press Act. In this connection, the Court observes that there existed no domestic regulations on State registration of internet media  and  that,  according  to  the  Government,  the  Press  Act  and  other normative  acts  regulating  media  relations  in  Ukraine  did  not  contain  any provisions on the status of internet-based media or the use of information obtained from the Internet.

63.  It is true that the Internet is an information and communication tool particularly  distinct  from  the  printed  media,  especially  as  regards  the capacity to store and transmit information. The electronic network, serving billions of users worldwide, is not and potentially will never be subject to the  same  regulations  and  control.  The  risk  of  harm  posed  by  content  and communications  on  the  Internet  to  the  exercise  and  enjoyment  of  human rights  and  freedoms,  particularly  the  right  to  respect  for  private  life,  is certainly  higher  than  that  posed  by  the  press.  Therefore,  the  policies governing reproduction of material from the printed media and the Internet may  differ.  The  latter  undeniably  have  to  be  adjusted  according  to  the technology’s  specific  features  in  order  to  secure  the  protection  and promotion of the rights and freedoms concerned.

64.  Nevertheless,  having  regard  to  the  role  the  Internet  plays  in  the context of professional media activities (see paragraphs 29-32 above) and its importance for the exercise of the right to freedom of expression generally (see Times Newspapers Ltd v. United Kingdom (nos. 1 and 2), no. 3002/03 and 23676/03, § 27, 10 March 2009), the Court considers that the absence of a sufficient legal framework at the domestic level allowing journalists to use  information  obtained  from  the  Internet  without  fear  of  incurring sanctions seriously hinders the exercise of the vital function of the press as a “public  watchdog”  (see,  mutatis  mutandis,  Observer  and  Guardian v. the United Kingdom, 26 November 1991, § 59, Series A no. 216). In the Court’s view, the complete exclusion of such information from the field of application of the legislative guarantees of journalists’ freedom may itself give rise to an unjustified interference with press freedom under Article 10 of the Convention.

65.  The  Court  further  observes  that  under  Ukrainian  law  journalists cannot be required to pay compensation in defamation cases if they did not disseminate  the  untrue  information  intentionally,  acted  in  good  faith  and verified the information, or if the injured party failed to use the available possibilities  to  settle  the  dispute  before  going  to  court  (see  paragraph  26 above).  In  the  domestic  proceedings,  the  applicants  explicitly  raised  the defence  of  qualified  privilege  under  the  relevant  legal  provision.

In particular, they argued that they had  not acted with malicious intent  to defame  the  claimant  by  publishing  the  material  in  question  and  that  the public  had  an  interest  in  receiving  the  information.  Furthermore,  they argued  that  by  reproducing  the  material previously  published  on  the Internet,  their  intention  had  been  to  promote  debate  and  discussion  on political  matters  of  significant public  interest.  They  also  argued  that  the claimant had not taken any steps to settle the dispute with them despite the fact that in the same publication they had invited any person concerned to comment. Their plea was entirely ignored by the courts, however.

66.  The Court therefore finds that, given the lack of adequate safeguards in  the  domestic  law  for  journalists  using  information  obtained  from  the Internet,  the  applicants  could  not  foresee  to  the  appropriate  degree  the consequences  which  the  impugned  publication  might  entail.  This  enables the Court to conclude that the requirement of lawfulness contained in the second paragraph of Article 10 of the Convention was not met.

67.  In these circumstances, the Court does not  consider it necessary to deal with the parties’ remaining submissions concerning this provision or to examine the proportionality of the interference at issue.

68.  Accordingly,  there  has  been  a  violation  of  Article  10  of  the Convention as regards this aspect of the case.

II.  APPLICATION OF ARTICLE 41 OF THE CONVENTION

69.  Article 41 of the Convention provides:

“If the Court finds that there has been a violation of the Convention or the Protocols thereto, and if the internal law of the High Contracting Party concerned allows only partial reparation to be made, the Court shall, if necessary, afford just satisfaction to the injured party.”

A.  Submissions of the first applicant

70.  The first applicant submitted that the appropriate just satisfaction in this case would be a finding of a violation of Article 10 of the Convention and an indication of general measures to be adopted by Ukraine to bring its legislation and judicial practice into compliance with “European standards of  freedom  of  expression”  as  regards  the  use  of  “socially  important information,  available  on  the  Internet,  the  credibility  of  which  is  open  to question.”

71.  The Government did not comment on this aspect of the case.

72.  Having  regard  to  the  circumstances  of  the  present  case  and  the conclusions the Court has reached under Article 10 of the Convention (see paragraphs 64-68 above), it does not consider it necessary to examine this case under Article 46 of the Convention with a view to indicating specific measures that might be taken in order to put an end to a violation found in the case (see, mutatis mutandis, Broniowski v. Poland [GC], no. 31443/96, § 194, ECHR 2004-V). The Court also notes that there is no call to award the first applicant any sum for just satisfaction.

B.  Submissions of the second applicant

1.  Damage

73.  The second applicant claimed 7,000 euros (EUR) for non-pecuniary damage.

74.  The Government contested the second applicant’s claim.

75.  The Court considers that the second applicant suffered some distress and  anxiety  on  account  of  the  violations  of  his  right  to  freedom  of expression. Ruling on an equitable basis, as required by Article 41 of the Convention, it awards him EUR 6,000 in this connection.

2.  Costs and expenses

76.  The  second  applicant  made  no  claim  in  respect  of  costs  and expenses. Therefore, the Court makes no award under this head.

3.  Default interest

77.  The Court considers it appropriate that the default interest should be based on the marginal lending rate of the European Central Bank, to which should be added three percentage points.

FOR THESE REASONS, THE COURT UNANIMOUSLY

1.  Decides to join to the merits the Government’s objection concerning the applicants’ victim status and rejects it;

2.  Declares the application admissible;

3.  Holds that there has been a violation of Article 10 of the Convention on account of the domestic courts’ order to the second applicant to publish an official apology;

4.  Holds that there has been a violation of Article 10 of the Convention on account of the applicants’ punishment for the impugned publication;

5.  Holds

(a)  that the respondent State is to pay the second applicant, within three months  from  the  date  on  which  the  judgment  becomes  final  in accordance  with  Article  44  §  2  of  the  Convention,  EUR  6,000  (six thousand euros), plus any tax that may be chargeable, in respect of non-pecuniary  damage,  to  be  converted  into  the  national  currency  of  the respondent State at the rate applicable at the date of settlement;

(b)  that  from  the  expiry  of  the  above-mentioned  three  months  until settlement simple interest shall be payable on the above amount at a rate equal to the marginal lending rate of the European Central Bank during the default period plus three percentage points.

6.  Dismisses  the  remainder  of  the  second  applicant’s  claim  for  just satisfaction.

Done  in  English,  and  notified  in  writing  on  5  May  2011,  pursuant  to Rule 77 §§ 2 and 3 of the Rules of Court.

  Claudia Westerdiek                                                                                                                                                                                  Dean Spielmann,

  Registrar                                                                                                                                                                                                                   President

Tags: ,