The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled yesterday that Icelandic authorities had violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides freedom of expression and information, when in 2012 the high court found newspaper DV guilty of libel.
The ruling is the sixth time the ECtHR has found Icelandic courts guilty of curbing the freedom of the press, with a similar case being overturned last September.
The case dates back to a 2011 story run by the newspaper about a criminal investigation into the company Sigurplast, which was suspected of several counts of fraud and embezzlement. One of its owners, Jón Snorri Snorrason, was an assistant professor of business studies at Bifröst University and the story was published with the headline “Police Investigate Assistant Professor.”
The high court ruled that the headline and the corresponding article had been slanders, as a formal criminal investigation had not begun. This was despite the fact that three lawsuits against Snorrason had been filed with the police.
Impeding the freedom of the press
Two editors and a journalist from DV were found guilty of slander and made to pay Snorrason 200,000 krónas in damages, plus 1 million in legal fees. The government maintained that since he did not engage in politics or hold any public office he was entitled to having his identity protected. The high court, however, did not specifically address whether Snorrason was well known.
The ECtHR found that since Snorrason was an assistant professor and the chairman and one of the owners of a leading industrial firm he was not entitled to the same level of protection as a private person. The court, furthermore found that the case had impeded the freedom of the press and could set a precedent for the future.
“Any undue restriction on freedom of expression effectively entails a risk of obstructing or paralysing future media coverage of similar questions,” the court wrote in its verdict. “The Court finds that the domestic courts failed to take the relevant criteria under the Court’s case-law into account when balancing the applicants’ right to freedom of expression.”
Snorrason was in 2013 sentenced to six months imprisonment for fraud.