The unilateral presentation of a private commercial activity of a Parliamentary election candidate has violated his privacy and is not protected by the freedom of expression
Prunea v. Romania 08.01.2019 (no. 47881/11)
Freedom of expression and protection of privacy. Defamation of a Parliamentary election candidate through allegations that he has not repaid a loan he received for his election campaign. Compensation for damages from national courts. No violation of the freedom of expression, since the applicant did not merely criticize the applicant’s activity as a public figure but publicly and unilaterally expressed his view of a private commercial dispute. The national courts have convincingly justified the right to protect the reputation of the politician above the applicant’s right to freedom of expression.
The applicant, Petru Prunea, is a Romanian national who was born in 1945 and lives in Cluj-Napoca
The case concerned a finding of defamation against the applicant after he had written an article
about a Parliamentary election candidate.
In November 2008, ahead of a Parliament election, Mr Prunea wrote an article which questioned the
honesty of a local candidate and accused him of taking out a loan to fund his electoral campaign,
which he had refused to repay. In April 2009 the candidate took Mr Prunea to court, alleging that the
article had damaged his reputation and made him lose the election. He also complained about
another article, written in January 2009, and leaflets distributed before the election.
In July 2009 the Cluj-Napoca Court of First Instance allowed the former candidate’s claim, ordering
Mr Prunea to pay 20,000 euros in damages and just under 3,300 Romanian lei in costs. The court
found that Mr Prunea had not proved that his statements were true and noted that the loan in
question had been extended by Mr Prunea’s own brokerage company and was the subject of an
Arbitration Tribunal case. Even if they had been true, the statements had been defamatory and
should have not been made in public, especially since they concerned matters of a private,
The County Court upheld the judgment on appeal but reduced the damages to EUR 5,000.
Relying in particular on Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human
Rights, Mr Prunea complained about the court orders to pay damages.
THE DECISION OF THE COURT
Article 10: The applicant’s criticism had been directed at a politician in respect of whom the limits of acceptable criticism were wider than in the case of a private individual. By standing in the parliamentary elections, the candidate had entered the political scene and inevitably and knowingly laid himself open to close scrutiny. For those reasons, he was required to display a greater degree of tolerance.
Nevertheless, the domestic courts had found that the applicant’s statements had harmed the candidate’s reputation and dignity and should not have been made public via the media, especially because they had referred to private matters. The domestic courts had taken into account the context in which the impugned allegations had been made, namely during an electoral campaign, and had confirmed the fact that they had been of public interest, in so far as they had concerned a public figure. It was relevant that in reaching the conclusion to allow the claim against the applicant, the domestic courts had considered that the latter had not intended to criticise the candidate’s activity as a public figure, but rather to expose publicly a unilateral view of private litigation of a commercial nature involving two private parties. In that respect, they had also held that the applicant had not complied with the minimal requirements of diligence, in the sense of acting in good faith.
The Court agreed with the domestic judicial authorities that the impugned statements had been an attack on the candidate’s reputation reaching the requisite level of seriousness and causing prejudice to the personal enjoyment of his right to respect for his private life under Article 8. The domestic courts had undertaken a satisfactory balancing exercise between the rights at stake, in conformity with the criteria laid down in the Court’s case-law; furthermore, they had convincingly established the need for placing the defendant’s right to protection of reputation above the applicant’s right to freedom of expression. The Court would have required strong reasons to substitute its view for that of the domestic courts and such strong reasons were lacking in this case.
Finally, in the particular circumstances of the applicant’s case, the imposed sanction of EUR 5,000 could not be found to have been disproportionately severe and could not be considered to have been capable of having a “chilling”, dissuasive effect on the applicant’s exercise of his right to freedom of expression.
No violation of article 10(echrcaselaw.com editing).