ECtHR: Convicting a journalist for disobeying police did not violate his rights

Ass. jur. Robin Zeiger

The Judgement of the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR of 20 October 2015 (Application no. 11882/10) states that a criminal conviction of a journalist who disobeyed  a police order while covering a public demonstration does not violate the right of freedom of expression according to Art. 10 of the Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).

The applicant, a photographer and journalist, Markus Pentikäinen was arrested during a demonstration against the "Asia-Europe-Meetings" in September 2006 in Helsinki and held in police custody for about 18 hours. During the demonstration, some of the demonstrators had used violence against the police. The police dispersed the demonstration and announced that the crowd should leave the scene. After most protesters left the demonstration, the police arrested the remaining 20 demonstrators, including the journalist Pentikäinen, for not following the police order. While being arrested he told the arresting police officer that he was a journalist, but he was arrested nonetheless.


Later, the public prosecutor brought criminal charges against the journalist and the District Court of Helsinki found the journalist guilty of disobeying the police order, but they did not impose any penalty on him, holding that his offence was excusable, since he was a journalist. Pentikäinen appealed against the decision to the ECtHR.


The ECtHR rejected the appeal. The Grand Chamber came to the conclusion that there had been an interference with the journalist’s right to freedom of expression and newsgathering. However, the ECtHR also decided, that the interference had been justified, because it was "necessary in a democratic society" within the meaning of Article 10 of the Convention. While the Chamber emphasized the roll of the media as a public "watch dog", it also emphasised the obligation of journalists to behave in a "responsible" way, which includes obeying lawful orders by the police. The Grand Chamber agrees with the Finnish authorities that the impugned measures taken against Pentikäinen were necessary and proportionate for the protection of public safety and the prevention of disorder and crime.


In an additional dissenting opinion, Judge Silvis stated that the arrest was justified, but that the journalist should not have been held in custody and charged and convicted of disobeying a police order, after introducing himself as a member of the press. Judge Silvis stated that the decision of ECtHR could have a chilling effect for journalists in comparable situations.

Ass. jur. Robin Zeiger works as a Legal Affairs Manager for ZDF Enterprises GmbH.

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The Judgement is available in English language and French language here.