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Fine over naked wrestling exposé rankles rights court

A broadcaster wrongly faced civil claims after it broke open the story about a clandestine club where men could pay to wrestle teenage girls naked in a high school gym, then take home video of the matches. 

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — A couple who admitted in a television interview to collecting money from men to wrestle naked teenage girls should not have been able to successfully sue the broadcaster, Europe’s top rights court ruled Tuesday.  

Michel Vieujean and his wife, Béatrice Goffin, were ultimately convicted in Belgium of inciting prostitution and debauchery, but a police investigation was still pending in January 2006 when the network RTBF reported on the case over several episodes of "Questions à la Une" or Top Questions. 

Investigative journalist Jean-Claude Defossé was tipped off to the wrestling club by his then-wife, who was working as a doctor at a local clinic and treated one of the girls. Following a police raid of their home, the couple agreed to appear on Defossé’s program. Vieujean admitted to organizing and filming the matches but denied forcing the girls to participate. 

Vieujean was a former student at the Athenée de Rochefort in southern Belgium and started a freestyle wrestling club there with his wife in the 1990s. Apart from traditional training, however, the couple would also host tournaments where the teenage girls wrestled each other or older men. Sometimes the matches were nude, and Vieujean and Goffin would also film the encounters and sell the footage. 

“The girl who wins has to touch the other's breasts or put her hand on her sex or lick her feet, it's all stuff that men like, well there are men who like it. We have to do sex stuff,” Vieujean said in an interview aired on January 24, 2006. 

The couple sued RTBF, arguing the program instigated a “trial by media.” They won an initial complaint against the broadcaster in 2008 for 6,000 euros ($6,300). On appeal that was reduced to 1 euro each. 

The European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday faulted the Belgian authorities for that judgment, finding that even symbolic compensation could have a chilling effect on the media. The ruling from the Strasbourg-based court is available only in French and orders Belgium to pay RTBF 54,600 euros ($57,500) in damages and expenses.

Because Vieujean and Goffin had agreed to appear on the show, the court said they would have had a “legitimate expectation” their private life would be affected. 

The court also pointed out that neither the couple nor the Belgian state disputed what happened. “The veracity of the facts related by the report was not called into question,” the seven-judge panel wrote.

In 2014, the couple were found guilty of inciting prostitution and incitement to debauchery of minors. They were fined 59,000 euros ($62,000), and Vieujean was given an 18-month jail sentence. Eight girls, four of whom were under the age of 16 at the time the events occurred, testified against the couple at their trial. 

This is the second ruling from the rights court involving RTBF and Belgium. In 2011, the ECHR also faulted Belgian authorities for blocking a program about patient rights because a doctor featured in the show was suing the broadcaster. The court noted that barring the program could allow anyone negatively portrayed in the news to sue media outlets to prevent the publication of stories about them and fined the country 42,000 euros ($44,000). 

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