Europe’s top court backs Russian newspaper portraying an official as Osama bin Laden

By Emil Weber

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on 21st November backed a Russian newspaper for its sarcastic portrayal of an administrative official as Osama bin Laden.

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

A local newspaper, Zemlyaki, published two articles in 2004 concerning the activities of the head of the Kstovo District Administration. In the first article, a member of the local council criticised the head of the administration’s spending and property management. The newspaper compared it to a fable implying that its hero “was a fool”. The second article depicted the same official as Osama bin Laden in a photo collage and, speaking about an district proposal on how to deal with industrial waste, commented sarcastically “we could blow anything up, or burn it”.

Following an application from the head of the administration, the Kstovo District Court ruled during the same year that the articles were defamatory and damaged his dignity and reputation. The court ordered the editorial board of the newspaper to pay a symbolic amount in damages, and to publish a statement of retraction. The Nizhegorodskiy Regional Court at a later point upheld the ruling of the first instance.

Freedom of expression

However, the ECtHR ruled on November 21st 2017 that the interference was not necessary in a democratic society and it constituted a violation of the freedom of expression according to article 10 of the European Convention.

The court said the head of administration, as a public figure, was required to show a greater degree of tolerance to criticism. “By standing in the local elections, [he] entered the political scene and inevitably and knowingly laid himself open to close scrutiny - scrutiny of his every word and deed by both journalists and the public at large”, the judgement read.

The subjects of the articles were also in the public interest and contributed to a public debate. “The issues raised in the articles were obviously of considerable importance for the local community”, the court said. “There is no evidence that the Russian courts performed a balancing exercise between the need to protect the [administration head’s] reputation and the [newspaper’s] right to impart information on issues of general interest”.

"Unhappy" is not enough 

According to the ECtHR, the complaint by the head of the administration was not connected to the factual basis of the issues raised in the two articles. “He was merely unhappy about the allegedly offensive use of epithets commenting on his professional activity”, it said.  

Concerning the fable analogy and the photo collage, the ECtHR said that they were sarcastic value judgements. “The burden of proof in this respect was impossible to discharge”, the judgement read. “The statements remained within the acceptable degree of stylistic exaggeration employed to express […] value judgment”.

“Notwithstanding the minor nature of the sanctions imposed on the [newspaper], they were capable of discouraging the participation of the press in debates over matters of legitimate public concern”, the court concluded.

It awarded the newspaper 7,500 Euros in non-pecuniary damages.

Case of Redaktsiya Gazety Zemlyaki v. Russia, application no. 16224/05. 21 November 2017

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