In the case of Balaskas v Greece [2020] ECHR 783 the European Court of Human Rights held that the conviction of a journalist of insulting a headmaster by describing him as a neo-Nazi in an article breached his right to freedom of expression.

The case was the latest of a number in which the Greek courts were found to have failed to apply standards conforming to those of the case-law on freedom of expression when weighed against an individual’s protection of his or her reputation, the court said.

The case concerned an article by journalist Efstratios Balaskas, editor-in-chief of the Lesbos daily newspaper Empros, which criticised BM, the headmaster of a High School in Mytilene, over an article he had published on his personal blog.

The headmaster’s piece, published in 2013 on November 17, an annual school holiday marking the anniversary of the massive 1973 student uprising which contributed to the end of the military dictatorship in Greece, was headlined ‘The ultimate lie is one: that of the Polytechnic School of 1973’.

Two days later an article by Mr Balaskas appeared on the front page and on page five of Empros, under the headline ‘The headmaster of the High School of Mytilene, B.M., attacks, through his personal blog, the “ultimate lie of the Polytechnic school”.’

It described the headmaster as a ‘well-known neo-Nazi’ and the ‘the theoretician of the entity “Golden Dawn”  in Lesvos’ and described his blog posting as ‘neo-fascist vomit’.

The headmaster filed a criminal complaint of slanderous defamation through the press. The first instance court convicted Mr Balaskas of insult and gave him a suspended six-month prison sentence. The appeal court upheld the conviction but reduced the sentence to a suspended three-month term.

The First Section of the Strasbourg court said the issue in the case was whether the interference with Mr Balaskas’ right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the Convention was necessary in a democratic society.

There was a conflict between Mr Balaskas’ rights under Article 10 and the headmaster’s right to respect for his private life under Article 8.

The first question was whether the article was information on a matter of public interest – and answering this meant that Mr Balaskas’ article had to be assessed as a whole.

The journalist had sought to share information on a blog article posted by the headmaster of a local high school and describing the 1973 student uprising as ‘the ultimate lie’ – views which were capable of giving rise to considerable controversy.

Mr Balaskas’ article reporting the headmaster’s views was on a matter of public interest and, as a journalist, he had a right to impart information on the matter.

But, said the First Section, the Greek courts had not examined the article as a whole – rather, they had focused on the characterisations used by Mr Balaskas, detached from the context, and so failed to include any consideration of its contribution to a matter of public interest.

“Even though they acknowledged that he had had a legitimate interest in informing the public, they failed to draw any conclusions from that” [46]

The headmaster was a civil servant, and so entitled to a degree of protection – but he had also regularly posted his views on political matters on personal blogs. The court had heard that in one post, in August 2010, the headmaster had written: ‘IT IS AN HONOUR TO BE CALLED A NATIONAL-SOCIALIST ...’

Even if the headmaster could not be compared to a public figure, he had exposed himself to journalistic criticism by the publicity he chose to give to some of his ideas or beliefs, so had to expect careful scrutiny of his words and show a higher degree of tolerance towards potential criticism of his statements by those who did not share his views.

But the Greek courts had not explicitly addressed these points, said the First Section, adding:

‘In particular, the Court of Appeal acknowledged that the facts contained in the applicant’s article and accompanying value judgments were related to BM in his capacity as headmaster of a local high school who was known to the local community. However, it failed to consider the extent to which BM’s capacity as a civil servant and his prior conduct were capable of influencing the protection which could be afforded to him. It additionally failed to take into account that the applicant’s report was about views BM had publicly shared through his blog on a political matter … and, as such, they were expected to attract greater attention and give rise to considerable controversy.’ [51]

There was no question about the manner in which the information in Mr Balaskas’ article was obtained, the court went on.

The Greek courts had classified the article’s characterisations of the headmaster as a “well-known neo-Nazi headmaster” and “theoretician of the entity “Golden Dawn” as value judgments, but then failed to assess whether they were supported by any factual background on the basis of his previous blog posts.

The Greek courts had also concluded that these expressions were intended to insult the headmaster, but without considering them in the general context of the case – in fact, the higher courts had examined these expressions detached from the article’s context to conclude that they were not necessary to pursue the legitimate aim on which Mr Balaskas relied, and that he could have used other phrases.

The First Section said it accepted that the language Mr Balaskas had used ‘could have been considered provocative and that the article was caustic, containing rather serious criticism’ but added that, ‘contrary to the Government’s allegations and the domestic courts’ conclusions, it sees no manifestly insulting language in the remarks’. [59]

Neither the impugned statements nor the article a whole could be understood to be a gratuitous personal attack on, or insult to the headmaster, it added.

On the penalty, the court said the case – ‘a classic example of criticism of a person known in the local community in the context of a debate on a matter of public interest’ [61] gave no justification for a prison sentence, which would inevitably have a chilling effect on public discussion.

Mr Balaskas was awarded €1,603.58  (£1,451.36) pecuniary damages, €10,000 (£9,046.31) in non-pecuniary damage, plus any tax which might be chargeable, and €1,258.60 (£1,138.27), plus any tax chargeable, for costs and expenses in the domestic proceedings.