The European Court of Human Rights will be delivering a Grand Chamber judgment in the case of Medžlis Islamske Zajednice Brčko and Others v. Bosnia and Herzegovina (application no. 17224/11) at a public hearing on 27 June 2017 at 3 p.m. in the Human Rights Building, Strasbourg. The case concerns a finding of defamation in civil proceedings against four organisations for a letter they had sent to the highest authorities of their district complaining of a certain person’s application for the post of director of the Brčko District multi-ethnic radio and television station. Soon afterwards the letter was published in a number of daily newspapers.
Principal facts and complaints
The applicants are four organisations: the Brčko Branch of the Islamic Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Medžlis Islamske zajednice Brčko), the Bosniac Cultural Society “Preporod” (Bošnjačka zajednica kulture “Preporod”), the Bosniac Charity Association “Merhamet” (“Merhamet” Humanitarno udruženje građana Bošnjaka Brčko Distrikta) and the Council of Bosniac Intellectuals (Vijeće Kongresa Bošnjačkih intelektualaca Brčko Distrikta).
In May 2003 the applicants sent a letter to the highest authorities of Brčko District complaining about Ms M.S.’s application for the post of director of their district’s multi-ethnic radio and television station and about her alleged misconduct with regard to Muslims and Bosniacs. They asked the authorities to reject M.S.’s application on the grounds that she did not have the requisite professional or moral qualities to occupy that sort of post. A short time later the letter was published in a number of daily newspapers.
Consequently, M.S. brought civil defamation proceedings against the applicants. Her action was dismissed at first instance on the grounds that it was not the applicants who had published the letter in the media. However, in July 2007 the Court of Appeal quashed the lower court’s judgment on grounds of the inaccuracies of the factual statements they had made about M.S. in their letter. They found that the statements were untrue and harmful to M.S.’s reputation and ordered the applicants to retract them, failing which they would have to pay € 1,280 for non-pecuniary damage. The court also ordered them to give the judgment to the Brčko District radio and television and to two newspapers for publication at their own expense. As the applicants failed to comply with that judgment M.S. applied for enforcement and, in December 2007, the applicants had to pay about € 1,445 for enforcement of the judgment of July 2007. In May 2010 the Constitutional Court upheld the Court of Appeal’s judgment.
Relying on Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights, the applicants complain about the punishment imposed on them in the context of civil liability for defamation.
The application was lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on 21 January 2011.
In its Chamber judgment of 13 October 2015, the Court held, by four votes to three, that there had been no violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the Convention. The Chamber held, in particular, that the national courts had made a distinction between statements of facts and value judgments and that, relying on the available evidence, they had correctly concluded that the applicants had acted negligently by simply reporting M.S.’s alleged misconduct without making a reasonable effort to verify the accuracy of those allegations. It also found that the award of damages made against the applicants had not been disproportionate. It concluded therefore that the domestic courts had struck a fair balance between M.S.’s right to protection of her reputation and the applicants’ right to report irregularities about the conduct of a public servant to the body competent to deal with such complaints and that the reasons given to justify their decisions had been “relevant and sufficient” and met a “pressing social need”.
On 8 January 2016 the applicants requested that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber under Article 43 (referral to the Grand Chamber) of the Convention and on 14 March 2016 the panel of the Grand Chamber accepted that request. A hearing was held on 31 August 2016. The Centre de Recherche et d’Etudes sur les Droits Fondamentaux (CREDOF) and Blueprint for Free Speech were given leave to intervene as third parties in the written procedure.
Press release ECHR 211 (2017) 21/06/2017