CASE OF ARMELLINI AND OTHERS v. AUSTRIA
(Application no. 14134/07)
16 April 2015
This judgment will become final in the circumstances set out in Article 44 § 2 of the Convention. It may be subject to editorial revision.
In the case of Armellini and Others v. Austria,
The European Court of Human Rights (First Section), sitting as a Chamber composed of:
Mirjana Lazarova Trajkovska,
Paulo Pinto de Albuquerque,
Ksenija Turković, judges,
and Søren Nielsen, Section Registrar,
Having deliberated in private on 24 March 2015,
Delivers the following judgment, which was adopted on that date:
1. The case originated in an application (no. 14134/07) against the Republic of Austria lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) by two Austrian nationals, Mr Harald Armellini and Mr Frank Andres and one company, Zeitungs- und Verlags GmbH (“the applicants”), on 30 March 2007.
2. The applicants were represented by Achammer Mennel Welte Achammer Kaufmann Rechtsanwälte GmbH, a partnership of lawyers having its seat in Feldkirch (Austria). The Austrian Government (“the Government”) were represented by their Agent, Ambassador H. Tichy, Head of the International Law Department at the Federal Ministry European and Intternational Affairs.
3. The applicants alleged that the conviction of the first and second applicants for defamation and the order to the applicant company to pay compensation had violated their rights under Article 10 of the Convention.
4. On 14 November 2012 the application was communicated to the Government.
I. THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE
5. The first applicant, Mr. H. Armellini, was born in 1961 and lives in Hard. The second applicant, Mr. F. Andres, was born in 1968 and lives in Bregenz. They are both journalists employed by the third applicant, Zeitungs- und Verlags GmbH, a limited liability company with its seat of business in Schwarzach. The applicant company publishes the regional newspaper Neue Voralberger Tageszeitung.
A. The background of the case
6. At the beginning of 2005 R.H., a German football referee, admitted to having participated in bet rigging (Wettbetrug) by manipulating football matches together with other persons, in particular the brothers F.S., M.S. and A.S.. R.H. told the police that he knew that football matches were also manipulated in Greece and Austria. As regards Austria, he referred to the football club Casino SW Bregenz, which still existed at the time of the events in 2005.
B. The article published by the applicant company
7. On 19 February 2005 an article written by the first and second applicants appeared in the Neue Voralberger Tageszeitung dealing with the German betting scandal’s links to Bregenz.
8. On the front page the headline, printed in a black box in white, read as follows: “Bregenz players bribed with 60,000 euros (EUR)” (“Bregenz-Spieler mit 60.000 € bestochen”). Below that headline, and still in the black box, were photographs of A.T., D.G. and A.I. and in a yellow box the phrase: “The investigators are at the heels of this trio: They may have manipulated matches for the betting-mafia!” (“Diesem Trio sind die Fahnder auf den Fersen: Es soll für Wett-Mafia Spiele manipuliert haben!”). In the upper left corner, a little box contained the following phrase: “Terrible suspicion against football pros confirmed:” (“Schlimmer Vedacht gegen Fussball-Profis erhärtet:”).
9. The main article on this subject, written by the first and second applicants, appeared on page 29. The headline read as follows: “Sold and betrayed the team for EUR 60,000?” (“Für 60,000 € Team verkauft und verraten?”). The article stated that the three football players had been bribed by the betting-mafia with EUR 60,000 for three matches. Bets for these Casino SW Bregenz matches had been placed in the Stuttgart area (Germany). In one match, which had ended with the result of 2:5 against Casino SW Bregenz, the goal-keeper, A.T., had made serious mistakes, as expected, and another player, A.I. had been replaced because of his poor performance. D.G. had also been playing in that match. The reason for the manipulations was the players’ financial difficulties: they had not received their salary for months. They had all signed a public statement prepared by the management of the club, denying their involvement in the betting scandal.
10. On the following page there was an article under the headline “A 5:2 result shocks a second time!” (“Ein 5:2 schockt ein zweites Mal!”) in which a football match of November 2004 was reviewed again and it was hinted that the poor performance of some of the players was connected to the betting-scandal.
C. The criminal proceedings
11. On 15 March 2005 A.T., D.G. and A.I. filed a private prosecution (Privatanklage) against the applicants before the Feldkirch Regional Court. They argued that the accusation raised in the article published by the applicant company in its newspaper on 19 February 2005, that they had accepted bribes and manipulated football matches, was particularly serious for a professional football player and his professional reputation. This accusation, which was untrue, constituted defamation and they requested the court to convict the first and second applicants of this offence. They indicated in particular the following passages of the article as defamatory:
(i) “Terrible suspicion against football-pros confirmed: Bregenz players bribed with EUR 60,000” (“Schlimmer Vedacht gegen Fussball-Profis erhärtet: Bregenz-Spieler mit 60,000 € bestochen”);
(ii) “Sold and betrayed the team for 60,000 EUR?” (“Für 60,000 € Team verkauft und verraten?”);
(iii) Bregenz players A.T., D.G. and A.I. were bribed 60,000 EUR for their team to lose three matches. (“Die Bregenz-Spieler A.T., D.G., und A.I. sollen bestochen worden sein. 60,000 €, damit ihr Team drei Spiele verliert.”);
(iv) (Regarding the third plaintiff. A.T.) “A.T. had made contact with the Croatian betting-mafia.” (“Den Kontakt zur kroatischen Wettmafia soll A.T. hergestellt haben.”).
12. They also claimed compensation from the applicant company for the harm caused and requested that the judgment be published in its newspaper.
13. On 21 March 2005 the Feldkirch Regional Court ordered the applicant company to publish within five days a short piece (kurze Mitteilung) on the institution of criminal proceedings for defamation in respect of the article at issue.
14. On 8 April 2005 the applicants commented on the charges against them. They argued that they had only voiced a suspicion against the plaintiffs but that in any event their statements were true or, at least, the first and second applicants had had good reason to believe that they were true, which would rule out punishment.
15. Between 26 April 2005 and 13 December 2005 the Regional Court held four hearings in the case in which it heard several witnesses, inter alia, K.E., a freelance journalist working for the third applicant’s newspaper and who had contacted two informants who had wished to remain anonymous, and R.H. (see above). R.H. spoke about his contacts with the S. brothers since May 2004 and stated that one of them, F.S., had contacts in Austria, in particular the football club Casino SW Bregenz. In his opinion two players of that team were in contact with F.S., but he did not give any names or other details.
16. On 13 December 2005 the Regional Court found that the incriminated statements from the article of 19 February 2005 amounted to defamation, convicted the first and second applicants of that offence and sentenced them to a fine of EUR 3,680 and EUR 5,040 respectively, suspended on probation for a probationary period of three years. It ordered the applicant company to pay compensation of EUR 20,000 to each plaintiff and to publish an extract of the present judgment in its newspaper.
17. As regards the impugned article, the Regional Court paid particular attention to its visual appearance which, through its layout and presentation, in particular the printing in white in a large black box, conveyed to the reader the impression that the investigators were about to catch the pictured persons, who had filled their pockets with money by using dirty tricks. That first impression was not mitigated by the small reference to a suspicion in the upper left corner. The same was true for the headline on page 29 which read: “Sold and betrayed the team for EUR 60,000?”. This was a leading question which already contained the answer, and again that first impression could hardly be mitigated by the use of the subjunctive in some phrases of the article itself. The court therefore concluded that, seen as a whole, the article created the impression of being a statement of facts about the scandal and not a genuine expression of a suspicion.
18. The Regional Court therefore examined whether the accused had acted with due journalistic diligence when they considered these statements as true, or if they could prove their veracity. As regards the first element, the Regional Court accepted that there was a public interest in being informed on the question of whether or not players of the Casino SW Bregenz team had actually been involved in a betting scandal, but found that the first and second applicants had not acted with sufficient professional diligence. They had not personally conducted any research to verify the well-foundedness of the rumours but had merely relied on the research of K.E., a freelance collaborator with the newspaper, and had not checked the reliability of the sources - anonymous informants not known to them. Furthermore, they had not given A.T., D.G. and A.I. an opportunity to react even though there had been important new elements going beyond a general suspicion of involvement in the betting scandal to which they had already reacted in the past, namely that they had received a specific amount, EUR 60,000, for manipulating three football matches in the summer of 2005.
19. Turning to the proof of truth put forward by the applicants, the Regional Court observed that D.G. and A.I. had only been accused by K.E.’s two informants, X and Y, of being involved in the betting scandal, and these informants had not given any details nor stated that they themselves had witnessed a transaction. Also R.H., when heard by the court, did not refer to them directly or indirectly. There was clearly no proof of the truth.
20. As regards A.T., the Regional Court observed that he had lied when he stated that he did not know F.S., that F.S. had repeatedly visited Bregenz and that there had been football matches in which that player had given a very poor performance. Also the informants X and Y had stated that A.T. was involved in the betting scandal. These were arguments speaking in favour of his involvement in the betting scandal, but there were also arguments speaking against. It was understandable that A.T. had not admitted to knowing F.S. immediately, when all kinds of suspicions were discussed in connection with the betting scandal, as F.S. was one of the principal persons involved in that scandal. Furthermore, there was only evidence that F.S. had visited Bregenz on various occasions between autumn 2003 and May 2004, whereas the football match which, in the eyes of the authors of the article, was particularly suspicious had taken place in November 2004. According to the information given by X and Y, F.S. had paid the three accused football players EUR 60,000 in summer 2004 for three matches which had not yet taken place. That did not coincide with his habits as described in detail by R.H. Lastly, the amount claimed by X and Y, namely EUR 60,000, was not plausible, given that Casino SW Bregenz had been at the very end of the national football league table in Austria throughout the season of 2004/2005 and the quota for bets on that team losing a match would have been so small that it would not have justified the investment of a considerable sum.
21. Weighing all these elements, the Regional Court concluded that the applicants had not succeeded in proving the truth of the statements made in the impugned article. As regards the compensation under Section 6 of the Media Act, the Regional Court found that the particular seriousness of the accusations raised, and the adverse effect they could have on the career of a professional footballer, justified the sum of compensation granted.
22. On 26 January 2006 the applicants appealed against this judgment. They argued that the impugned article did not contain a statement of fact but merely a suspicion against A.T., D.G. and A.I. Moreover, the first and second applicants had fully complied with journalistic ethics. As K.E. and the applicants had acted as a team, there was no need to check further the information received and at that stage of the investigations there had also been no need to give the plaintiffs an opportunity to react to the information to be published.
23. On 6 April 2006 the Innsbruck Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal of the first and second applicants, but partially granted the appeal of the applicant company and reduced the amount of compensation to EUR 12,000 for each plaintiff. It found that the Regional Court had carefully weighed the arguments and had arrived at a correct and well-reasoned judgment. It agreed with the Regional Court that the first and second applicants had not reported on a mere suspicion but had presented their allegations as facts which they had failed to prove.
II. RELEVANT DOMESTIC LAW
24. If a publication in the media, viewed objectively, constitutes defamation under Section 111 of the Criminal Code or an insult under Section 115 of the Criminal Code, the insulted person may claim non-pecuniary damages against the media owner, pursuant to Section 6 of the Media Act.
Section 111 of the Criminal Code, in so far as relevant, reads as follows:
“1. As it may be perceived by a third party, anyone who makes an accusation against another of having a contemptible character or attitude, or of behaving contrary to honour or morality, and of such a nature as to make him contemptible or otherwise lower him in public esteem, shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding six months or a fine (...)
2. Anyone who commits this offence in a printed document, by broadcasting or otherwise, in such a way as to make the defamation accessible to a broad section of the public, shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding one year or a fine (...)
3. The person making the statement shall not be punished if it is proved to be true. As regards the offence defined in paragraph 1, he shall also not be liable if circumstances are established which gave him sufficient reason to assume that the statement was true.”
Section 6 of the Media Act, in force at the time of the events, read as follows:
“6 (1) If in a medium the presence of the factual elements of the offence[s] of defamation [....] is established, the person concerned has against the owner of the medium a claim for compensation of the prejudice suffered. ...”
I. ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 10 OF THE CONVENTION
25. The applicants complained that their conviction for defamation and the order to pay compensation violated their right to freedom of expression. They relied on Article 10 of the Convention, which reads as follows:
“1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. ...
2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”
26. The Government contested that argument.
27. The Court notes that the application is not manifestly ill-founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 (a) of the Convention. It further notes that it is not inadmissible on any other grounds. It must therefore be declared admissible.
28. The Court notes that it is common ground between the parties that the Feldkirch Regional Court’s judgment of 19 October 2004, upheld by the Court of Appeal, which convicted the first and second applicants of defamation and ordered the applicant company to pay damages, constituted an interference with the their right to freedom of expression, as guaranteed by Article 10 § 1 of the Convention.
29. An interference contravenes Article 10 of the Convention unless it is “prescribed by law”, pursues one or more of the legitimate aims referred to in paragraph 2, and is “necessary in a democratic society” for achieving such an aim or aims.
30. The Court considers, and this was acknowledged by the parties, that the interference was prescribed by law, namely by Article 111 of the Criminal Code and section 6 of the Media Act. The Court further finds, and this was likewise not disputed between the parties, that the interference served a legitimate aim, namely “the protection of the reputation or rights of others” within the meaning of Article 10 § 2 of the Convention.
31. The parties’ argument concentrated on the question of whether the interference had been “necessary in a democratic society” within the meaning of Article 10 § 2 of the Convention.
1. The parties’ submissions
32. The applicants submitted that the subject matter of the articles published in the applicant company’s newspaper concerned issues of particular public interest, namely fraud connected with manipulated football games. In order to report correctly on this issue the applicants had also to reveal the identity of the private plaintiffs in the defamation proceedings who were public figures because, at the time of the events, A.T., D.G. and A.I. were football players for an Austrian football club in the First League. Therefore the public had a right to be informed of these events.
33. They further submitted that the article of 19 February 2005 merely reported on a suspicion that A.T., D.G. and A.I. had manipulated football matches. Accordingly the headline on the first page stated “Terrible suspicion against football players confirmed” and under the picture it was stated that “The investigators are at the heels of this trio: they may have manipulated matches for the betting mafia”. In the article on page 29 of the issue, the headlines raised the question of whether the team had been betrayed and sold for EUR 60,000. The sub-headline stated that there was new evidence in the betting scandal. This article also included the statements made by A.T., D.G. and A.I. that they had nothing to do with the bet rigging.
34. In the applicants’ view, all requirements of journalistic diligence had in every way been fulfilled. It was a fact that the police had investigated the betting scandal and K.E., a free-lance journalist working for the applicant company’s newspaper, had obtained information from two informants whom he considered trustworthy and this information corresponded to the results of the police investigations. The applicants therefore reported correctly on an existing suspicion against A.T., D.G. and A.I. and the conviction of the first and second applicants for defamation and the order to pay damages were in breach of Article 10 of the Convention.
35. The Government submitted that the articles at issue concerned a matter of public interest which also extended to the identity of A.T., D.G. and A.I., who had to be considered as public figures, since they played for an Austrian football club in the First League at the time. As regards the contents of the article or articles published, the Regional Court carefully examined the meaning of the incriminated passages of the text in the context of the article as a whole and arrived at the conclusion that the text did not limit itself to voicing the suspicion that D.G., A.I. and A.T. had manipulated football matches, but presented these accusations as facts.
36. The Government pointed out that, at the trial, the applicants had claimed that their statements were essentially true and that, in any event, they had acted with the required journalistic diligence and therefore had good reason to believe that their statements were true. However, the Regional Court found that the applicants had failed to prove the truth because they had not acted with sufficient journalistic diligence. In particular, they had not given D.G., A.I. and A.T. a fair opportunity to comment on the charges raised because they had failed to confront them with the most relevant charge, namely that they had received the sum of EUR 60,000 for manipulating one particular match of the Casino SW Bregenz football club. This was not an irrelevant detail, but as highlighted by the headline on the front page and in the article itself, was a central element.
37. Moreover, the sanction imposed on the applicants was not disproportionate. The first and second applicants were sentenced to a moderate fine, suspended on probation, and the applicant company was ordered to make compensation payments under Article 6 of the Media Act in an amount which could not be considered excessive.
2. The Court’s assessment
(a) General principles
38. According to the Court’s well-established case-law, the test of necessity in a democratic society requires the Court to determine whether the interference complained of corresponded to a “pressing social need”, whether it was proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued, and whether the reasons given by the national authorities to justify it are relevant and sufficient (see The Sunday Times v. the United Kingdom (no. 1), 26 April 1979, § 62, Series A no. 30). In assessing whether such a need exists and what measures should be adopted to deal with it, the national authorities are left a certain margin of appreciation. This power of appreciation is not, however, unlimited but goes hand in hand with a European supervision by the Court, whose task it is to give a final ruling on whether a restriction is reconcilable with freedom of expression as protected by Article 10 (see Bladet Tromsø and Stensaas v. Norway [GC], no. 21980/93, § 58, ECHR 1999-III). In exercising its supervisory jurisdiction, the Court cannot confine itself to considering the impugned court decisions in isolation; it must look at them in the light of the case as a whole, including the materials for which reproach is made against the applicant company and the context in which they were published (Krone Verlag GmbH & Co. KG v. Austria, no. 34315/96, § 34, 26 February 2002 with further references).
39. An important factor for the Court’s determination is the essential function of the press in a democratic society. Although the press must not overstep certain bounds, in particular in respect of the reputation and rights of others or the proper administration of justice, its duty is nevertheless to impart - in a manner consistent with its obligations and responsibilities - information and ideas on all matters of public interest (see Bladet Tromsø and Stensaas, cited above, § 59, and as a recent authority, Flinkkilä and Others v. Finland, no. 25576/04, § 73, 6 April 2010). By reason of the “duties and responsibilities” inherent in the exercise of freedom of expression, the safeguard afforded by Article 10 to journalists in relation to reporting on issues of general interest is subject to the proviso that they are acting in good faith and on an accurate factual basis and providing reliable and precise information in accordance with the ethics of journalism (see Fressoz and Roire v. France [GC], no. 29183/95, § 54, ECHR 1999-I, and, as a recent authority, Eerikäinen and Others v. Finland, no. 3513/02, § 60, 10 February 2009).
40. Whilst it is true that the methods of objective and balanced reporting may vary considerably and that it is therefore not for this Court, nor for the national courts, to substitute their own views for those of the press as to what technique of reporting should be adopted (Jersild v. Denmark, 23 September 1994, § 31, Series A no. 298), editorial discretion is not unbounded. Not only does the press have the task of imparting such information and ideas: the public also has a right to receive them. Were it otherwise, the press would be unable to play its vital role of “public watchdog” (Observer and Guardian v. the United Kingdom, 26 November 1991, § 59, Series A no. 216; Thorgeir Thorgeirson v. Iceland, 25 June 1992, § 63, Series A no. 239; Bladet Tromsø and Stensaas, cited above, § 62, Gutiérrez Suárez v. Spain, no. 16023/07, § 25, 1 June 2010).
41. In this respect the Court reiterates that Article 10 does not guarantee wholly unrestricted freedom of expression to the press, even with respect to coverage of matters of serious public concern. While enjoying the protection afforded by the Convention, journalists must, when exercising their duties, abide by the principles of responsible journalism, namely to act in good faith, provide accurate and reliable information, objectively reflect the opinions of those involved in a public debate, and refrain from pure sensationalism (see Novaya Gazeta and Borodyanskiy v. Russia, no. 14087/08, § 37, 28 March 2013 with further references and mutatis mutandis Bargão and Domingos Correia v. Portugal, nos. 53579/09 and 53582/09, § 40, 15 November 2012).
42. The subject matter at issue in this case relates, on the one hand, to the right of the press under Article 10 of the Convention to inform the public on matters of public interest and concern and, on the other, to the State’s positive obligations under Article 8 of the Convention to protect the reputation of persons to whom such proceedings relate. When verifying whether the authorities struck a fair balance between two protected values guaranteed by the Convention which may come into conflict with each other in this type of case - freedom of expression protected by Article 10 and the right to respect for private life enshrined in Article 8 - the Court must balance the public interest in the publication of the information and the need to protect a person’s reputation (see Axel Springer AG v. Germany [GC], no. 39954/08, § 84, 7 February 2012 and Pfeifer v. Austria, no. 12556/03, § 38, 15 November 2007). The balancing of individual interests which may well be contradictory is a difficult matter and Contracting States must have a margin of appreciation in this respect since the national authorities are in principle better placed than this Court to assess whether or not there is a “pressing social need” capable of justifying an interference with one of the rights guaranteed by the Convention (see MGN Limited, cited above, § 142, and Egeland and Hanseid v. Norway, cited above, § 55). In cases such as the present one, which require the right to respect for private life to be balanced against the right to freedom of expression, the Court considers that the outcome of the application should not, in theory, vary according to whether it has been lodged with the Court under Article 8 of the Convention by the person who was the subject of the article, or under Article 10 by the publisher. Indeed, as a matter of principle these rights deserve equal respect Accordingly, the margin of appreciation should in theory be the same in both cases Von Hannover v. Germany (no. 2) [GC], nos. 40660/08 and 60641/08, § 106, ECHR 2012).
(b) Application of these principles to the present case
43. In the present case the applicant company’s newspaper Neue Vorarlberger Tageszeitung published, on 19 February 2005, an article written by the first and second applicants. In that article, three professional football players of the Casino SW Bregenz football team, A.T., D.G. and A.I., were accused of having accepted a bribe of EUR 60,000 for manipulating three football matches. The three players instituted proceedings for defamation against the first and second applicants and for compensation against the applicant company. On 13 December 2005 the Regional Court convicted the first and second applicants of defamation and imposed fines in the amount of EUR 3,680 and EUR 5,040 respectively and ordered the applicant company to pay compensation in the amount of EUR 20,000 to the plaintiffs. Upon appeal the Court of Appeal maintained the conviction of the first and second applicants and reduced the amount of compensation to EUR 12,000 for each plaintiff.
44. Like the parties, the Court considers that the article concerned a subject matter which was of considerable public interest, namely manipulation of sports games and fraud connected thereto, and the interest of the general public to be informed on such events did not only extend to the football clubs engaged in competitions but also extended to the individual players, who were known to the readers of sport pages.
45. As regards the contents of the impugned article, the Court observes that the applicants did not discuss in a general manner a matter of public concern but rather directly attacked three football players from the Casino SW Bregenz football club and accused them of having accepted money in exchange for manipulating football matches. The Regional Court carefully examined the character of the article and, besides the wording, also took into account its context, layout and presentation. In particular it found that the manner in which the text was printed, drawing the reader’s attention to the accusation raised, and the use of photographs and leading questions created an overall impression of being a statement of facts about the scandal and not a genuine expression of a suspicion. In this respect the Court considers that accusations of manipulating football matches can seriously damage the personal and professional reputation of football players and may have important financial repercussions for them and the football clubs concerned, as they touch upon the central ethical conception of sports.
46. While the applicants claimed before the Court that they had merely expressed a suspicion and that they had had sufficient factual basis for their suspicion, before the Regional Court they had claimed that their statements were true and offered to prove the truth of their allegations. These accusations were extremely serious, and given that the accusations were concrete, detailed and addressed to persons named in the article, the Court considers that they should have had a solid factual basis.
47. As regards the proof of truth offered by the applicants, the Court observes that the Regional Court in its judgment exhaustively assessed the evidence submitted by the applicants and concluded that the truth of the allegations was not supported by this evidence. From the material before it also the Court does not consider that the applicants could have relied on such a solid factual basis. As required by Austrian law, the Regional Court also examined whether the applicants could rely on the further line of defence under Section 111 (3) of the Criminal Code, namely that they had acted with necessary journalistic diligence. The Court does not consider that the domestic courts set unreasonable requirements for proving the truth of the applicant’s allegations nor overstretched the requirement of journalistic diligence. Given that the applicants reported on the matter giving particular details which, for example, concerned the amount of the bribe, the number of football matches manipulated, extensively featuring one particular match, and drew readers’ attention to these details, the Court does not find it unreasonable that the Austrian courts considered one statutory declaration signed by the players of the football club and drawn up by the managment of the club as insufficient to give A.T., D.G. and A.I. a reasonable opportunity to comment on the charges (Prager and Oberschlick v. Austria, 26 April 1995, § 37, Series A no. 313).
48. Lastly, the Court considers that the interference with the applicants’ right under Article 10 of the Convention to impart information was proportionate. The first and second applicants, who had written the article at issue, were sentenced to fines in the amount of EUR 3,680 and EUR 5,040 respectively, suspended on probation for a probationary period of three years, and the applicant company was ordered to pay compensation for the injury caused to the persons whose reputation had been damaged. That amount, initially fixed by the Regional Court at EUR 20,000, was eventually reduced to EUR 12,000 for each plaintiff. These amounts appear reasonable, taking into account the length of the article and its contents which, on account of the details given and the photographs published, constituted a serious interference with the plaintiffs’ personal and professional reputation.
49. In sum, the Court finds that the respondent State acted within its margin of appreciation in assessing the need to protect the plaintiffs’ reputation in the defamation proceedings instituted by them. It is satisfied that the restriction on the applicants’ right to freedom of expression resulting from the judgments of the Regional Court and the Court of Appeal was supported by reasons that were relevant and sufficient, and was proportionate to the legitimate aims pursed.
50. There has accordingly been no violation of Article 10 of the Convention.
FOR THESE REASONS, THE COURT, UNANIMOUSLY,
1. Declares the application admissible;
2. Holds that there has been no violation of Article 10 of the Convention;
Done in English, and notified in writing on 16 April 2015, pursuant to Rule 77 §§ 2 and 3 of the Rules of Court.
Søren Nielsen Khanlar