HomeInsightsEuropean Court of Human Rights finds that not all of a claimant’s critical statements amounted to incitement of hatred, thereby warranting interference with his right to freedom of expression

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The claimant, Boris Vladimirovich Stomakhin (a Russian national), was the editor, publisher and distributor of a monthly newsletter between 2000 and 2004 that dealt mainly with the war in Chechnya, which was going on at the time.

The authorities began an investigation into Mr Stomakhin in December 2003 on suspicion of him expressing views that amounted to appeals to carry out extremist activities and to incitement to racial, national, and social hatred.

Mr Stomakhin said that he printed the newsletter for himself and did distribute it. He simply expressed his opinion on political events in Russia, in particular the conflict in Chechnya. He denied supporting extremism.

The Russian courts eventually found that Mr Stomakhin had made appeals to extremist acts and had justified and glorified acts of terrorism by Chechens. He had also called for violence against the Russian people and had argued that the Orthodox faith was inferior. He was convicted of the offences in November 2006, a decision that was upheld on appeal in May 2007. He was sentenced to five years in prison and a given a three-year ban on practising journalism. He served the sentence in full and was released in March 2011.

Mr Stomakhin appealed to the ECtHR, arguing that the conviction for views expressed in the newsletters, which he had distributed at various events, was unlawful under Article 10 (freedom of expression).

The ECtHR considered that some of Mr Stomakhin’s statements had justified terrorism, vilified Russian servicemen to the extent that they might have become targets for actual attack, and had praised Chechen leaders in the context of approving violence. Those statements had therefore gone beyond the limits of acceptable criticism and the ECtHR found that the Russian courts’ treatment of them had been proportionate.

In addition, some of Mr Stomakhin’s criticisms of Orthodox believers and ethnic Russians had incited hatred and enmity and the Russian courts’ considerations had been “relevant and sufficient”.

However, the ECtHR said, the Russian courts had been too harsh in other aspects. In particular, some statements about the war had not gone beyond acceptable limits of criticism, which were wide when it came to governments. The Russian courts had also taken other comments on Russian servicemen out of context and Mr Stomakhin had not appealed for criminal acts or incited hatred against all soldiers.

The ECtHR said that it was vitally important for governments to take a cautious approach when determining the scope of crimes of hate speech. It called on them to strictly construe legislation in order to avoid excessive interference under the guise of action against such speech, when what was in question was actually criticism of the authorities or their policies. (Stomakhin v Russia (application no 52273/07) (9 May 2018) — to read the judgment in full, click here).

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