Stojanovic v Croatia: ECHR 19 Sep 2013

ECHR Article 10-1
Freedom of expression
Award of damages against applicant who denied making the defamatory statements for which he was found liable: Article 10 applicable; violation
Facts – In 2003 a municipal court found the applicant jointly and severally liable with the publisher in a civil action in damages brought by a government minister following the publication of two allegedly defamatory articles in a magazine. The first article contained an interview in which the applicant, who was from the same political party as the minister, criticised ministerial policy. The applicant was held liable for harming the minister’s reputation as the title of the article described his actions as ‘machinations’. The applicant’s liability with regard to the second article concerned two defamatory statements he had allegedly been overheard to make during a telephone conversation with the party’s general secretary, one of which concerned an alleged threat to the applicant’s career advancement. During the domestic proceedings, the applicant relied on his right to freedom of expression and maintained that he had not uttered the words attributed to him, but his arguments were rejected.
Law – Article 10
(a) Applicability – The Government had argued that, since the applicant insisted that he had never made the impugned statements, he could not rely on his right to freedom of expression. However, the extent of liability in defamation could not go beyond a person’s own words, and an individual could not be held responsible for statements or allegations made by others. Therefore, in a situation where the applicant actually argued that, by attributing to him statements he had never made and ordering him to pay damages, the domestic courts had indirectly stifled the exercise of his freedom of expression, he was entitled to rely on the protection of Article 10. Otherwise, if his argument proved to be correct, the award of damages would be likely to discourage him from making criticisms of that kind in the future. Article 10 was therefore applicable.
Conclusion: preliminary objection dismissed (unanimously).
(b) Merits – The order to pay damages amounted to interference with the applicant’s right to freedom of expression, which interference was prescribed by law and pursued the legitimate aim of protecting the reputation or rights of others. As to whether it had been necessary in a democratic society, the Court was called upon to apply the distinction between statements of facts and value judgments to the allegedly defamatory statements attributed to the applicant in order to ascertain whether his liability in tort for defamation had gone beyond his own words. As for the title of the first article, any liability for its wording could be imputed only to the editor-in-chief of the magazine, not to the applicant himself. As regards the second article and the applicant’s allegedly defamatory statement concerning the minister’s view on the applicant’s career advancement, the domestic courts had mistakenly qualified it as a statement of fact rather than a value judgment, the veracity of which was not susceptible of proof. By holding the applicant liable for the title of the first article and for that statement in the second article, the domestic courts had extended his liability in defamation beyond his own words without providing ‘relevant and sufficient’ reasons to justify such interference with his freedom of expression.
Conclusion: violation (unanimously).
Article 41: EUR 1,500 in respect of non-pecuniary damage; claim in respect of pecuniary damage dismissed.
(See also Reznik v. Russia, 4977/05, 4 April 2013, Information Note 162)

23160/09 – Chamber Judgment, [2013] ECHR 833, 23160/09 – Legal Summary, [2013] ECHR 961
Bailii, Bailii
European Convention on Human Rights, European Convention on Human Rights

Human Rights

Updated: 20 November 2021; Ref: scu.515351