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Finding of defamation did not unfairly restrict journalist's freedom of expression rights, rules ECHR

A journalist found to have defamed a businessman did not have his rights to freedom of expression unfairly restricted as a result of that finding, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled.16 Jun 2017

The ECHR rejected claims by Icelandic journalist Ólafur Arnarson that he was entitled to make qualified "value judgments" about the chief executive officer of the Icelandic Federation of Fishing Vessel Owners (the LIU) without having to substantiate those statements.

The ECHR said that Arnarson had implied that the LIU's chief executive had engaged in accounting deceptions, fraud by abuse of position and negligence at work. Arnarson claimed, though, that his statements were made in good faith and contained "several important reservations". He argued that it was "unreasonable" and an "impossible task" to meet a requirement to prove the statements he made "beyond doubt", according to the ruling.

However, the ECHR said Arnarson's comments had been an "attack" on the LIU chief executive's reputation. The attack was so serious that it "caused prejudice" to the businessman's right to respect for a private life, it said.

The ECHR considered whether Arnarson's freedom of expression rights trumped the businessman's right to privacy. It explained what factors need to be considered when making such an assessment.

"The criteria which are relevant when balancing the right to freedom of expression against the right to respect for private life are: the contribution to a debate of general interest; how well‑known is the person concerned and what is the subject of the report; his or her prior conduct; the method of obtaining the information and its veracity; the content, form and consequences of the publication; and the severity of the sanction imposed," the ECHR.

In dismissing Arnarson's case, the ECHR concluded that he had not engaged in "responsible journalism". Arnarson had attempted to rely on the fact that his statements were based on an article that had been published in Icelandic newspaper DV and that he had no reason to believe the information was untrue.

However, the ECHR said Arnarson had gone beyond merely repeating the statements in the other publication.

"The Court reiterates that the safeguard afforded by Article 10 to journalists in relation to reporting on issues of general interest is subject to the proviso that they are acting in good faith and on an accurate factual basis and provide 'reliable and precise' information in accordance with the ethics of journalism," the ruling said. "The Court finds that there were no special grounds in the present case to dispense the media from their ordinary obligation to verify factual allegations that are defamatory."

"The Court notes that although the substance of the issue … had been dealt with in DV, printed a year before, the statements he made, directed at [the LIU chief executive's] alleged misconduct, were his own further elaboration of the issue in question," it said. "Furthermore, as found by the [Icelandic court], [Arnarson] did not offer any proof for the factual allegations or demonstrate that they were based on a sufficiently accurate and reliable factual basis."

"The fact that [Arnarson] submitted that his allegations could not be confirmed does not, in the Court’s view, detract from the sufficient basis upon which the [Icelandic court] classified the statement in question as constituting 'insinuations of fraud by abuse of position and negligence at work' and thus defamatory. The Court thus concludes that by publishing his allegation without confirmation on its veracity, [Arnarson] could not have been acting in good faith, and thus in accordance with the standards of responsible journalism," the ECHR said.