Fair balance between the right to respect for private life and the right to freedom of expression

In the case of Mesić v. Croatia (no. 2) (application no. 45066/17, 30.05.2023) the European Court of Human Rights held, by five votes to two, that there had been no violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private life) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court has already ruled in the separate case of Mesić v. Croatia (application no. 19362/18), in which it decided on the applicant’s application in the case of a lawyer’s claim for defamation against the applicant. 

The case concerned an article published in February 2015 by an Internet news portal Dnevno.hr suggesting that the applicant, a former President of Croatia, had, during his term of office, been offered or taken bribes in relation to the procurement of armoured vehicles for the Croatian army from the Finnish company Patria. 

Mr Mesić complained that by dismissing his civil action for compensation, the domestic courts had failed to protect his reputation in violation of his right to respect for private life. 

The Court has already ruled that although the press must not overstep certain bounds, in particular in respect of the reputation and rights of others and the need to prevent the disclosure of confidential information, its duty is nevertheless to impart – in a manner consistent with its obligations and responsibilities – information and ideas on all matters of public interest. The Court agreed that the statements portraying Mr Mesić as a criminal had been capable of seriously tarnishing his reputation and discrediting him in the public eye, thereby endangering his rights under Article 8 of the Convention. 

The main issue was whether the State had achieved a fair balance between Mr Mesić’s right to protection of reputation and the right of the news portal to freedom of expression. It noted that in examining the case, the national courts had paid attention to the relevant criteria laid down in the Court’s case-law for that balancing exercise. They had considered whether the article had contributed to a debate on a matter of public interest, how well known the applicant was, and the way in which the information had been obtained and how true it was. 

The Court found that the article had undoubtedly concerned a matter of public interest, and the “watchdog” role of the media was particularly important in such a context, where investigative journalism meant that the authorities could be held to account. Also, the limits of acceptable criticism were wider as regards a politician than as regards a private individual. This applied even more so to Mr Mesić as he was not an ordinary politician but a head of State. Moreover, the article had not targeted his private life but had referred to his conduct in the exercise of his official duties. 

The Court held that the domestic courts’ findings had to be viewed in the light of the fact that they had examined the article as a whole rather than simply reviewing the three statements in isolation. For the Court, the domestic court’s approach was justified, it being difficult to disassociate the three statements from the rest of the article. The Court found that the journalist had only reported what was stated in official documents and had made it clear that the statement about Mr Mesić receiving a bribe of EUR 630,000 was not his own. The Court found nothing inaccurate in the statement that two people had been sentenced to terms of imprisonment for giving bribes for the sale of armoured vehicles to Croatia. As regards the third statement, the Court found that it could not be said, when taking the article as a whole, that the journalist had unambiguously stated that Mr Mesić had participated in criminal activities. The Court concluded that the national courts had struck a fair balance between the former president’s right to respect for his private life and the right of the news portal to freedom of expression. There had therefore been no violation of Article 8 of the Convention.

Reference from the official website of the European Court of Human Rights