HCLU Wins Freedom of Speech Case at European Court of Human Rights

On July 19th, after a lengthy legal battle, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg ruled in favor of journalist Peter Uj, represented by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. The journalist criticized the state owned Tokaj Kereskedőház (Hungarian winery) and specifically characterized it’s wine as shit. Criminal charges (defamation and criminal libel) initiated by the Tokaj Kereskedőház were pressed against him.

In June 2009, in it’s first instance decision, the Budapest II/III District Court convicted Uj of defamation. On appeal, in November 2009, the Budapest Regional Court reversed this judgment, holding that the incriminated statement was a value judgment and therefore the applicant was to be convicted for libel. The court held that although the applicant was entitled to express his opinion about the wine in question, by characterising it as “shit” – an expression unduly insulting – he had infringed the producer's right to a good reputation. The court reduced the sanction to a reprimand. In May 2010, the Supreme Court upheld the applicant's conviction and sentence.

After the proceedings in Hungary ended, the journalist turned to the HCLU for legal representation against the State of Hungary in Strasbourg in his complaint that his conviction represented an infringement of his right to freedom of expression as provided in Article 10 of the Convention. The ECHR declared the application admissible and on July 19th, 2011 ruled in favor of the journalist. The ECHR held that there has indeed been a violation of Article 10 of the Convention.

The HCLU believes that journalists are free to express their views in any style and have a right to express their opinions. The opinion on the wine also bares significance due to the fact that it was aimed at a product of a company owned by the State of Hungary, which makes it a public matter. After three erroneous judgments by Hungarian Courts, the ECHR shared the HCLU’s opinion when it stated: ’style constitutes part of the communication as the form of expression and is as such protected together with the content of the expression.’

’We consider the ruling a great victory. However, it is sad that three Hungarian court instances have fallen for the intimidating legal procedures of a state owned company. Journalists opinions and their style of expression have maximum freedom. This is what the ECHR confirmed in its ruling.’ – stated Tamás Szigeti, Head of the HCLU’s Political Freedoms Program.

Click here to read the ECHR’s judgement.

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