The International Federation of Journalists and its European regional group, the European Federation of Journalists, today called upon Austrian legislators to review their libel laws after a decision by the European Court of Human Rights overturned defamation judgements against the Austrian newspaper Der Standard.
“We welcome this judgement,” said Rachel Cohen, IFJ Communications Officer. “It is a blow for press freedom and it should be a signal to lawmakers in Austria that they need to urgently review regulations to make sure they are not endangering free expression.”
On Thursday the court overturned judgements against Standard Verlags GmbH, the Vienna-based company that owns Der Standard. The cases related to three separate articles that the newspaper published between September 1998 and March 2000. Public figures named in the three articles brought defamation and other charges against the newspaper and some of its staff.
The European Court’s decision said that Viennese court’s finding violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of expression.
“While we applaud the decision from the European Court of Human Rights, the original cases in the Austrian courts were an attack on press freedom in Austria,” said Cohen. “Journalists must be allowed to fulfil their watchdog duty by reporting on the comments and behaviour of public officials.”
The European Court said in a statement that the Austrian courts’ reasons in their decisions “had not been relevant or sufficient to justify the interference in the applicants’ right to freedom of expression” and that the convictions and fines against the defendants were “not necessary in a democratic society.”
The first case involved the publication in 1998 of a judge’s comments about homosexuality in a press case brought against an Austrian magazine for an article criticizing homosexuality.
The second case involved defamation charges against Der Standard for an article published in March of 2000 that an Austrian politician knew about fraudulent practices in the Austrian Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, or FPÖ).
The third case involved proceedings against the newspaper for publishing an article in October 1998 that referred to FPÖ politician Jörg Haider’s conviction for defamation of a university professor.
“Austrian laws on defamation and freedom of the press need to be examined,” Cohen said. “Prosecuting journalists who are reporting factual information of public interest that involves public officials like judges and politicians is an attack on press freedom and must be stopped.”
To read the statement for the European Court of Human rights, click here .
For more information contact the IFJ at +32 2 235 2207
The IFJ has over 500,000 members in more than 100 countries worldwide