The second chamber of the Czech Constitutional Court rejected the constitutional complaint by MAFRA, a.s. (Czech newspaper publisher) since the complaint did not infringe claimant’ s freedom of speech.
The accessory together with other participants was charged for joint enterprise in procuring. In February 2010 MF Dnes published an article describing the course of the trial. In connection with this, it also dealt with the length of the litigation since it had already started in 2005, and the reasons behind it, including the grounds for which the accessory and others were accused. The accessory demanded a printed apology from the claimant for publishing the article and also damages of 10,000CZK. He claimed that his personality rights had been infringed because he was repeatedly named as a “procurer” in the article and charged for deliberately delaying the litigation. The trial judge dismissed his claim. On the accessory’s appeal, court ordered the claimant to print the apology and also to avoid using such definitions in the future. The claimant’s appeal to the High Court was dismissed.
In the situation above, the principle of freedom of speech collided with the right for personal protection. When deciding which one of these has greater priority, it always depends on the overall context of each individual case. However, it is possible to determine certain rules that courts should put more emphasis on when settling alike cases. When the principle of presumed innocent until proven guilty is to be violated due to personality rights’ protection, as it occurred in the case above, the Constitutional Court has to consider in what way the principle itself steps into those determined rules.
The principle of presumed innocent until proven guilty is embedded in the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, Article 40. It determines that a defendant has to be presumed innocent until proven guilty by prosecution. This not only restricts the running of the prosecution’ s procedure but also affects the relationship between the subjects of equal status. This aspect of the principle is contained in the Article 10 of the ChFRF and Article 8 of European Convention of Human Rights and Article 40 paragraph 2 of the ChFRF together with Article 6 paragraph 2 of the ECHR introduce it even in a more specific way. It is agreed that the principle does not prevent one from passing information about litigation and its circumstances; however, it does restrict the method of how it should be done in certain ways.
In the case discussed above, the court dealt with whether the article implied that the accessory was undeniably guilty of crime by naming him as a “procurer” or a “member of the gang of procurers”. If that was the case then the article did not respect the principle of presumed innocent until proven guilty when publishing the information about the case, and thus it infringed the defendant’ s personality rights.
The Constitutional Court held that it is a common practise for periodicals to use such tags in order to simplify the information about cases. Therefore, it was correct for the trial courts to interpret the words within the whole context of the article, not in isolation. However, the interpretation confirmed the article indeed conveyed the message that the accessory was guilty of the crime. And there is a great difference between being charged for a crime and being convicted of a crime. Although it was obvious from the article that the court had yet to decide whether the accessory’s conviction should had been upheld or not, the words used still implied that the defendant was definitely a procurer. The constitutional Court is convinced that a reader with no detailed knowledge about the case or the law would come to such conclusion and would believe it to be the truth.
There is no reason to presume that such formulations were used to state the accessory is guilty but the article did achieve it indirectly. Its conclusion has failed since it talks about the guilt in isolation from the rest of the facts and completely denies that the accessory is still presumed innocent.
It can be said that the discussed case appears to be on some sort of a boundary where a mere journalistic shortcut stepped into personality rights. Despite of this, the Constitutional Court emphasizes the importance of ensuring protection of the accessory’s personality rights. In fact, nowadays we both actively and passively receive a lot of information which spreads instantly. Due to the lack of time it is difficult for us to process and assess whether the information is correct or not. This however gives great power to media to expose someone to medial pressure or even condemnation by releasing certain (and sometimes false) news which is hard for normal people to face. The consequences of it can be fatal to one’ s social and personal life. Publicly active individuals should also accept such risks, although they often have to count on it. On the other hand, they can face it by more effective means.
To conclude, the Constitutional Court upheld trial courts’ decision which chose to protect the personality rights of the accessory and stated that the apology from the claimant did not infringe her constitutional right to freedom of speech.
Press release July 14, 2015, Constitutional Court, Brno, TZ 60/2015
Full judgement is available only in the Czech language:www.usoud.cz
The translation was made by Zemfira Alakbarova, Attorney office JUDr. Eva Ondřejová, LL.M.