Feldek proti Slovensku
Európsky súd pre ľudské práva
12. júla 2001
In 1992 a poem written by the applicant was published in two newspapers. In separate articles, certain journalists alleged that the expression "member of the SS" in the poem referred to the Minister for Culture and Education, Dušan Slobodník. Several newspapers subsequently published a statement by the applicant in which he referred to Dušan Slobodník's "fascist past". Issues relating to Dušan Slobodník's past had already been taken up by several newspapers prior to publication of the applicant's poem. Dušan Slobodník sued the applicant for defamation. He was unsuccessful at first instance but on appeal the Supreme Court authorised him to distribute for publication at the applicant's expense a declaration that the latter's statement and his poem represented "gross slander". The court also ordered the applicant to pay damages, the court costs and the plaintiffs expenses.
The applicant lodged an appeal on points of law. A different Chamber of the Supreme Court, sitting as a court of cassation, upheld the decision in so far as it entitled Dušan Slobodník to publish the declaration with regard to the statement but quashed it as regards the poem, the damages and the costs. The city court to which the case was remitted stayed the proceedings in respect of the poem on the ground that the plaintiff had withdrawn his claim. It dismissed Dušan Slobodník's claim for damages. The Supreme Court subsequently upheld the city court's decision. Dušan Slobodník filed an appeal on points of law; the proceedings were still pending at the time of adoption of the present judgment.
The applicant complained that his right to freedom of expression (Article 10), as well as his right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 9) have been violated, moreover he had been discriminated against based on his political opinions (Article 14).
The Court held that that the applicant’s right to freedom of expression had been violated. The decisions of domestic courts in which the applicant's statement was found to be defamatory and which ordered the publication of that conclusion in several newspapers constituted an interference with his freedom of expression. On the other hand, the Court held that the complaint was unfounded in relation to Articles 9 and 14 of the Convention.
- The Court acknowledged that the interference had a legal basis in the Civil Code and the Court was satisfied that the application of the relevant provisions and practice in the applicant's case had not gone beyond what could be reasonably foreseen in the circumstances of the case. The interference was therefore prescribed by law.
- Furthermore, the grounds relied on by the domestic courts were consistent with the aim of protecting the personal rights of the plaintiff and the interference consequently had the legitimate aim of protecting the reputation or rights of others.
- As to the necessity of the interference, the Court made a distinction between statements of fact, which can be proved, and value judgments, which are not susceptible of proof. Moreover, where a statement amounts to a value judgment, the proportionality of an interference may depend on whether there exists a sufficient factual basis for the impugned statement, since even a value judgment without any factual basis to support it may be excessive. The promotion of free political debate is a very important feature in a democratic society and very strong reasons are required to justify restrictions on political speech or on debate on questions of public interest. In the present case, the applicant's statement was made in a political context which was crucial for the development of Slovakia and, although the statement contained harsh words, it was not without a factual basis. There was nothing to suggest that it was made other than in good faith, pursuing the legitimate aim of protecting the democratic development of the newly established State. The statement was a value judgment, made in the context of a debate on an issue of general interest, and it concerned a public figure, in respect of whom the limits of acceptable criticism are wider than for a private individual. The necessity of a link between a value judgment and its supporting (acts may vary Irom case to case, in accordance with the specific circumstances. In the present case, the value judgment made by the applicant was based on information already known to the public and the term "fascist past" was a wide one and was open to different interpretations. The court of cassation had not established convincingly any pressing social need for putting the protection of the personal rights of a public figure above the applicant's right to freedom of expression and the general interest of promoting this freedom when issues of public interest were concerned. In particular, it did not appear from the decisions of the domestic courts that the applicant's statement had affected Dušan Slobodník's political career or his professional and private life. In conclusion, the reasons adduced by the court of cassation could not be regarded as a sufficient and relevant justification for the interference with the applicant's right to freedom of expression. The national authorities had therefore failed to strike a fair balance between the relevant interests and the interference was not necessary in a democratic society.