Top court rules on journalists' sources

By Emil Weber

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled on 4th October 2017 that the right to protection of sources cannot exempt journalists from their obligation to verify information of factual nature. An Icelandic journalist, reporting in the context of 2008 financial crisis, was sanctioned for defamation after failing to prove some factual basis of his reporting despite his reference to the right of protection of sources.


Top Euro court rules on journalists' sources Adrian Grycuk Courtroom European Court of Human Rights 05

Working for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service (RUV), Mr. Svavar Halldórsson reported in three occasions during 2010 about an alleged loan transaction of around 20 million Euros, from an Icelandic company to a shell company in Panama during 2007. The loan was then written-off from the accounts of the Icelandic company, it was reported. The TV series maintained that the Icelandic authorities had documents showing that the money had returned to the pockets of the owner of the company and his two business partners, whose photos were shown during the broadcast. The series said the loan was being investigated.  

Defamation cost Halldórsson 11,400 euros 

A well-known business leader, portrayed as one of the partners involved with the company owner, issued a press release following the last RUV broadcast on the topic. His reaction was included in an online published version of the report at RUV’s website. The businessman then lodged a defamation application and the appellate instance, the Supreme Court, ruled in 2012 that Mr. Halldórsson did not present any document in support of the reported claim concerning the businessman. Nor did he demonstrate that he had sought information from him prior to the publication of the report according to the broadcasting rules of RUV.

The court declared the claim that the businessman had received money was null and void and ordered Mr. Halldórsson to pay 11,400 Euros in damages and costs.

The ECtHR ruled in October 2017 that the domestic Supreme Court correctly weighed the right to respect for private life and the right to freedom of expression on the case, based on articles 8 and 10 of the European Convention. The top European court agreed that the business leader was a well-known public figure in Iceland, often mentioned in media, and that the topic was of public interest since it was related to the 2008 financial crisis.

'Public interest relies on facts and precise information'

However, according to the court, even those persons who are known to the public have a legitimate expectation to have their right to private life protected and respected, and the journalistic reports in the public interest should still rely on facts and provide precise information.

According to the ECtHR, these obligations should have applied, but were absent in the RUV reports. “The news item […] contained accusations of a factual nature concerning unlawful and criminal acts”, the court said. “The attack on (business leader’s) reputation […] caused prejudice to (his) enjoyment of the right to respect for private life”.

The ECtHR further noted that “audio-visual media have a more immediate and powerful effect than the print media”.

It objected in particular to the method of gathering the information. Although Mr. Halldórsson had presented a confirmation from the prosecutor “about an ongoing investigation into the loan transaction”, the court said the confirmation had been handed in only after the case was instigated and it did not state that the business leader was “charged, indicted, or was on trial or had been convicted of a crime…”.

“The applicant referred to the right to protect his sources and to keep his sources and the documentation behind the news items confidential”, the ECtHR said. “However, the applicant was at no stage required to disclose the identity of his sources”.

 “Furthermore, in the view of the Court, a mere reference to protection of sources cannot exempt a journalist from the obligation to prove the veracity of, or have sufficient factual basis for serious accusations of a factual nature, an obligation that can be met without necessarily having to reveal the sources in question”, the judgement read.

Case of Halldórsson v. Iceland, application no. 44322/13. 4 October 2017

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