Strasbourg ruling that German courts breached right to freedom of expression

12.09.14 |
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In the case of Axel Springer v. Germany (No. 2) the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the German courts breached German newspaper Bild's right to freedom of expression.  The Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI) intervened in the case.  Heather Rogers QC acted for MLDI. 

 

The case concerned an article about former Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder which reported questions, raised by the leader of the opposition, about why Schröder called an early election. Schröder's appointment as chairman of the supervisory board of a German-Russian gas consortium had been controversial. He had helped negotiate a deal on the construction of a gas pipeline from Russia while in office.

 

The German courts ruled that the media's reporting of the questions gave rise to a defamatory imputation. Even though the newspaper had been reporting remarks by the leader of the opposition, in the context of a political debate about a matter of public interest, the German courts held that the media were required to investigate the allegation themselves  before publishing it, being required both to take full responsibility for its truthfulness and to obtain a response from the former Chancellor. The German courts found against the newspaper and granted an injunction preventing further publication.


MLDI in its intervention raised serious concerns about the approach of the German courts. The requirements imposed hampered the ability of the media to report on matters of public interest or to contribute to debate on such matters. There are cases in which  verification is not required prior to publication - often referred to as "neutral reportage" - and recognition of that is required if the media are to fulfil their role as "watchdog". The decision of the European Court agrees with MLDI's submissions. The article contributed to a debate of general interest, relating to Schröder’s conduct as Chancellor and his controversial appointment shortly thereafter, and did not relate to his private life. Bild was not required systematically to verify every comment made by one politician about another before publication or to include all factors that could be said in favour of Schröder in its reporting.

 

The judgment was handed down in July 2014.  It is available in French only; an English language version is awaited.  It can be read here:

 

More background on the intervention is available from MLDI here: The intervention itself (MLDI’s submissions to the European Court) can be read here

 

Further discussion of the case can be found on the Inforrm blog.

 

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