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First Decision: AXEL SPRINGER V GERMANY (Application No. 39954/08)


In the first judgment, the Court considered a complaint brought by Axel Springer AG against the German government, finding that there had been a violation of Article 10 – freedom of expression.

The applicant was the publisher of the daily newspaper Bild, Germany’s equivalent of The Sun. The case concerned the publication of details relating to the arrest and trial of X, an actor best known for portraying a character described as Superintendent Y in a long running popular television series. X, who held a previous conviction for the possession of cocaine, had been arrested at the Munich beer festival on suspicion of a further drugs offence. The arrest was confirmed to a journalist by police at the scene and subsequently by the public prosecutor’s office.

Two articles were published, one at the time of the arrest and one at the time of trial, in respect of which X obtained injunctions. At trial the domestic courts carried out the balancing exercise between X’s personality rights and the publisher’s right to freedom of expression, holding that when balancing the competing interests the decisive criteria were how well known X was and the seriousness of the offence with which he was charged. On the facts the domestic courts found that X’s personality rights prevailed.

Having been refused leave to appeal by the Federal Court, Axel Springer brought a complaint to the ECHR, citing a violation of Article 10. Following submissions by the parties, the Court considered the following facts to be relevant:

1. The contribution of the debate to the general interest;
2. The renown of the person concerned and the subject of the report;
3. The previous conduct of the individual claiming personality rights;
4. The method of obtaining the story, together with its veracity;
5. The content, form and consequences of the article; and
6. The severity of the sanctions imposed on the publisher.

Weighing up these factors the Court concluded that in this case the grounds relied upon by the Government were not sufficient to establish that the interference with Article 10 was necessary in a democratic society.

Accordingly there had been a violation of Article 10 (decided by 12 votes to 5). The applicant publisher was awarded €17,734.28 in damages and costs of €32,522.80.