The absolute ban on the use of non-official languages during election campaigns is not in line with the Convention

In the case of Mestan v. Bulgaria (application no. 24108/15, 02.05.2023) the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been a violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The case concerned an administrative sanction imposed on the leader of a political party – traditionally supported by voters belonging to the Turkish minority in Bulgaria – who was a candidate in the 2013 Bulgarian parliamentary elections, for speaking in Turkish while campaigning for election. The Bulgarian authorities took the view that he had breached the Bulgarian Electoral Code.

The Court noted that the Bulgarian Electoral Code imposed an absolute prohibition on the use of any language other than the official language (Bulgarian) in election campaigning, and that breaches of the relevant provisions resulted in administrative sanctions in the form of fines. In that connection it observed that the absolute nature of the prohibition in question had deprived the national courts of their power to exercise proper judicial scrutiny. 

The Court accepted that States were entitled in principle to regulate the use of languages – in certain forms or in view of the circumstances relating to communication with the public – by candidates and other persons during election campaigns and, if need be, to impose certain restrictions or conditions that corresponded to a “pressing social need”. However, a regulatory framework consisting of a total prohibition on the use of non-official languages coupled with administrative sanctions could not be held to be compatible with the essential values of a democratic society, which included freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 10 of the Convention. In that connection the Court noted that the language used by the applicant in the present case, namely Turkish, was both his mother tongue and that of the minority population he had been addressing.

The Court stressed the importance of pluralism, tolerance and the protection of minorities in a democratic society and observed that respect for minorities, far from weakening democracies, could only make them stronger. Thus, despite the margin of appreciation afforded to the national authorities, the Court considered that the prohibition in question did not correspond to a pressing special need and was not proportionate to the legitimate aims mentioned in Article 10 of the Convention. The interference with the exercise of the applicant’s right to freedom of expression had therefore not been necessary in a democratic society.

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