European Court of Human Rights finds no breach of Article 10 in relation to findings of defamation against Latvian politician

In 2002 the applicant, Mr Rungainis, was chairman of the board of a Latvian bank. In October of that year, he presented a report to the board which showed that money had been paid to an advertising agency without any supporting documents, raising suspicions that the funds had been misappropriated.

The day after he presented the report, a Latvian newspaper wrote, on the basis of an interview with Mr Rungainis, that a former president of the bank, AL, might have been responsible for siphoning money out of the bank to pay the advertising company. That company had run an advertising campaign for a new political party, the Latvia’s First Party, for which AL was running for Parliament.

Internal and external audits by the bank later showed that in actual fact all the services provided by the advertising agency had been accounted for.

AL issued defamation proceedings. At first instance, Mr Rungainis admitted that the information he had provided had been wrong and apologised to AL and the journalists. The court dismissed the defamation charges. However, the appeal court later found for AL and that decision was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Relying on Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Mr Rungainis complained that the defamation judgment against him was an unjustified interference with his right to freedom of expression.

The ECtHR noted that freedom of expression imposed duties and responsibilities, such as the need carefully to check information before disclosing it. Such a duty was all the more important for people who held a public position, it said.

On the evidence, the ECtHR found that Mr Rungainis’s initial report, on the basis of which he had made serious allegations against AL, who was also a candidate in elections, did not have a sufficient factual basis and that he had overstepped the limits of acceptable criticism in relation to AL.

The ECtHR was satisfied that the interference with Mr Rungainis’s rights that had been caused by his being fined for defamation was supported by relevant and sufficient reasons. The authorities had struck a fair balance between his rights and those of AL and had acted within the limits of their discretion under the ECHR. (Rungainis v Latvia (Application no 40597/08) (14 June 2018) — to read the judgment in full, click here).