(CN) – Slovakia violated the rights of a newspaper in a libel trial brought by a police chief who reportedly helped a politician drunkenly urinate off a restaurant’s terrace while possibly peeing in his own pants, Europe’s top human rights court ruled.
The situation unfolded in 1999 when a reporter for a popular Slovakian newspaper got an anonymous tip and sped to a restaurant where the then-vice president of police was downing Cognac with a member of parliament.
Witnesses allegedly told the journalist that the parliamentarian, who was a municipal mayor and the president of a political party, had urinated off the patio at the restaurant. The reporter claimed to have watched for 10 minutes as the politician and police chief staggered drunkenly around the restaurant, then interviewed a waitress and customers. The next day, the journalist said he had a follow-up interview with the waitress and also spoke to the cop, who denied any impropriety.
The newspaper then ran a series of stories alleging that the politician had peed off the terrace, held up by the policeman who was also “rollicking” drunk.
Both sued the newspaper for libel, but the human rights court considered only the policeman’s case on appeal. It said that Slovakian courts found in favor of the policeman, requiring the periodical to publish a correction and apology, and pay around $18,000 in compensation.
Ringier Axel Springer Slovakia, a joint venture of the Swiss media corporation Ringier and German multimedia conglomerate Axel Springer, appealed, arguing that the courts improperly credited the cop’s witness. The media company said its key witness confirmed that the police chief had a damp patch on his trousers, indicating he had urinated on himself, and had said the politician gave him protection.
The European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg, France, ruled that the journalist had properly exercised his duty of care before the newspaper published the allegations.
Slovakian courts, which based their decision on favoring privacy rights, failed to balance this against the journalist’s good faith and ethical behavior.
In any case, a public interest was clearly present, the human rights court said. It also reiterated that courts should make a distinction between publications on statements of fact versus those expressing value judgments.
The human rights tribunal concluded that Slovakia had violated the newspaper’s free speech rights, although it did not award damages, since it agreed with the Slovakian Supreme Court that the newspaper should have appealed the fine on points of law.