ECtHR backs Slovak TV channel for being sarcastic about death of Polish President

By Emil Weber

The top European human rights court backed a Slovak television company for sarcastic comments after the death of Polish President Lech Kaczyński.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg (photo: Nicoleon, Cour européenne des droits de l'homme, CC BY-SA 4.0) The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg (photo: Nicoleon, Cour européenne des droits de l'homme, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The commentary of the television program, owned by MAC TV s.r.o, was titled “Compassion in accordance with the protocol”. It referred to late President Kaczyński as a “russophobe” and “a man who represented an extreme Polish conservatism” and, accordingly, described the “tears” and “bitter sorrow” of opponents within and outside Poland as “required by diplomatic protocol”. The commentary ended with the sentence: “I am sorry, but I do not pity Poles. I envy them”.

The Broadcasting Council in Slovakia initiated an administrative proceeding and fined the company with 5,000 euros. While the council recognized the company's right to freedom of expression, it called the absence of regret for the death and the manner in which the commentary was presented “sub‑standard" and that it "had dishonoured the late President”. The Supreme Court upheld the decision, a later complain at the Constitutional Court was rejected.

However, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that the domestic authorities’ interference on MAC TV s.r.o's right to freedom of expression was unjustified and amounted to a violation of article 10 of the European Convention. It awarded the company 17,750 Euros in damages and costs.

According to the ECtHR, the limits of acceptable criticism of politicians are wider than in the case of private individuals, and the President's stance and his conservatism “gave rise to a matter of public interest”.

In addition, the domestic authorities failed to consider the wider context of the commentary, it says. “The impugned commentary […] cannot be understood to have constituted a gratuitous personal attack on, or insult to Lech Kaczyński”, the ECtHR judgement read. “It is true that it contained a sarcastic tone unsympathetic to the political ideology of the late President. However […] nothing in that commentary suggests that the (company) overstepped the limits of freedom of expression”. 

The ECtHR noted that the domestic authorities focused on the protection of individual rights of the late President, but did not extend to the “need to protect the public in general”. The commentary did not “incite praise for the death of the President” or “constitute hate speech”, while noting that administrative proceedings were not raised by late President’s relatives, polish people or authorities.

Case of MAC TV s.r.o. v. Slovakia, application no. 13466/12. 28 November 2017

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