Iceland: Journalist’s rights violated over cocaine smuggling case

Gianna Iacino

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decided that the criminal conviction of an Icelandic journalist for the reporting on unproven criminal investigations was a violation of the journalist’s right to freedom of expression (02 June 2015).

In July 2007, the journalist published an article in a paper on several criminal procedures against an alleged cocaine dealer. Under the headline: "Scared cocaine smugglers" the journalist reported about the indictment, in which it said – inter alia – that the cocaine was hidden in a car.

After his acquittal the alleged cocaine dealer brought a defamation action against the journalist and the publisher of the newspaper. The lower instances dismissed his action. But the Supreme Court of Iceland ordered the journalist to pay damages for using the term "cocaine smuggler" and for writing "… believing that the cocaine was still in the vehicle …".

Against this decision of the Supreme Court the journalist turned to the ECtHR complaining a violation of his right to freedom of expression embedded in article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights (Convention).

The ECtHR decided that the decision of the Supreme Court of Iceland did indeed violate the journalist’s rights to freedom of expression. Although, the ECHR stated that the conviction was prescribed by law and that the Supreme Court did undertake the necessary balance of interest between the journalist’s right to freedom of expression and the plaintiff’s right to privacy, it decided that the national Court of Iceland did not take the journalists rights sufficiently into account when making its decision.

According to the ECHR the reporting on unproven criminal charges in drug related cases is of great public interest, and additionally the journalist did cite the indictment and therefore, had no reason to believe to be using an untrustworthy source of information. Therefore, the Supreme Court’s arguments were relevant but not sufficient to justify the restrictions of the journalist’s rights, since they were not necessary in a democratic society according to article 10 (2) of the Convention.

However, between the article and the headline of the article exists no connection according to the ECHR and therefore, the publisher – as the responsible party for the headline – is obligated to pay damages.

Gianna Iacino, LL.M., is a research assistant at the Institute of European Media Law (EMR), Saarbrücken/Brüssel.

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The judgement of the ECHR is available in English language here.

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Source information: This article was originally published by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom –