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06.11.2019

Victory for ECPMF-backed case at the European Court of Human Rights

By Jane Whyatt

A Hungarian journalist has won a major legal victory and test case with support from the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF).

Building of the European Court of Human Rights Building of the European Court of Human Rights (photo: CherryX)

Illés Szurovecz, a twenty-six year old reporter working for the online news portal abcug.hu, brought the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) after he was denied entry to the Debrecen refugee camp in eastern Hungary. A Member of Parliament, who accompanied Szurovecz, was allowed in, but he himself was barred.

He claimed this breached his right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and his right under Article 13 to seek a legal remedy. ECPMF, working with the Media Legal Defence Initiative, Index on Censorship and other free press champions, supported the case at the European Court of Human Rights.

In the letter they wrote as a third party intervention, they emphasised that newsgathering, including physical access to the places where important events are developing, is an essential component of investigative journalism.

This is not only a victory for Ilies Szurovecz, and it does not only affect Hungary. It is a victory for investigative journalism in Europe and the world as it sets a precedent on legal practice and how future cases are decided.  

As Professor Dirk Voorhoof writes in the Strasbourg Observer

“It should serve a powerful precedent for journalists throughout Europe seeking access to asylum-seeker detention centres, and other immigration detention camps. Importantly, it should be noted that it is not just the Hungarian government that restricts media access to such detention centres, but as detailed by ECPMF’s refugee journalist Ola al Jari and Reporters Without Borders, journalists are routinely ‘denied access to migrant detention centres almost everywhere in Europe’, including France, Italy, Spain and Greece (see herehere). .

'Protecting privacy of refugees' 

On their part, the Hungarian authorities argued that they were protecting the privacy of the asylum seekers in the camp by denying access for interviews and photographs.

In finding that they had breached Szurovecz’s human rights with regard to Articles 10 and 13 of the Convention, the Court’s judgement emphasised that it was important for the credibility of the reporting that the journalist could witness the conditions in person, pointing out that, 

Information obtained outside the Reception Centre might not have had, in the eyes of the public, the same value and reliability as first-hand data that the applicant could have obtained by accessing the Reception Centre in person.”

The journalist’s claim for damages was rejected by the court, but it awarded him costs of 2,625 euros plus VAT for the legal fees he had to pay.

However the Hungarian authorities closed down Debrecen Reception Centre in December 2016, so the ruling comes too late to set the record straight in that particular case.

Still, as Professor Voorhoof, a Founding Member of ECPMF points out, it represents a landmark case for media freedom:

“It is hoped that the Court’s reasoning in the Szurovecz case can be used as a shield, and help bring an end to the threats, intimidation, arrest, prosecution, denial of permits, rejection of interview requests, seizure of equipment and deportation, as the methods used by governments in Europe to obstruct media coverage of refugees.”

Here you can read more about ECPMF’s mission to defend journalists’ rights when covering refugee movements in Hungary (add link to article)

And the Centre is taking its campaign to Hungary with its NEWSOCRACY conference in Budapest on December 12. 2019.