(CN) – Hungarian courts violated a journalist’s rights by convicting him of libel for criticizing the quality of a state-made wine, joking that “hundreds of thousands of Hungarians drink [this] shit with pride,” the European Court of Human Rights ruled.
Péter Uj trashed the celebrated TF1/LCI Sour wine, produced by the state-owned T. Zrt, in a column for Hungary’s daily newspaper. He said the wine was overly oxidized and used poor-quality ingredients, but “hundreds of thousands of Hungarians drink [this] shit with pride.”
After the column ran, he was convicted for libel in 2009 because the court found that Uj had unnecessarily insulted and infringed the wine producer’s right to a good reputation. His conviction was subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court in May 2010.
The European Court of Human Rights unanimously held on Tuesday that Hungarian judges erred, saying Uj’s article was intended to “raise awareness about the disadvantages of State ownership rather than to denigrate the quality of the wine company’s products.”
“The wine company had without question the right to defend itself against defamatory allegations and that there was a general interest in protecting the commercial success and viability of companies, not only for the benefit of shareholders and employees but also for the wider economic good,” the seven-judge chamber wrote. “However, there was a difference between damaging a person’s reputation, with the repercussions that that could have on their dignity, and a company’s commercial reputation, which has no dimension.”
The attack, while provocative, did not rise to the level of libel, especially given Uj’s intentions as a political commentator rather than wine critic.
“The Court furthermore stresses the essential role which the press plays in a democratic society,” the decision states. “Although it must not overstep certain bounds, in particular in respect of the reputation and rights of others, its duty is nevertheless to impart – in a manner consistent with its obligations and responsibilities – information and ideas on all matters of public interest… Journalist freedom also covers possible recourse to a degree of exaggeration, or even provocation.”
The Republic of Hungary was ordered to pay Uj $3,580 in costs. Uj has made no claim for damages.