FIRST SECTION

DECISION

AS TO THE ADMISSIBILITY OF

Application no. 60899/00 
by KOBENTER and Standard Verlag GmbH 
against Austria

The European Court of Human Rights (First Section), sitting on 1 February 2005 as a Chamber composed of:

Mr C.L. Rozakis, President
 Mr L. Loucaides
 Mrs F. Tulkens
 Mrs E. Steiner
 Mr K. Hajiyev
 Mr D. Spielmann, 
 Mr S.E. Jebens, judges,

and Mr S. Nielsen, Section Registrar,

Having regard to the above application lodged on 16 August 2000,

Having regard to the observations submitted by the respondent Government and the observations in reply submitted by the applicants,

Having deliberated, decides as follows:

THE FACTS

The first applicant, Mr Samo Jakob Kobenter, is an Austrian national, born in 1960 and editorial journalist at the newspaper “Der Standard”. The second applicant is the owner and publisher of this newspaper with its seat in Vienna. They are represented before the Court by Mr M. Wukoschitz, a lawyer practising in Vienna. The respondent Government are represented by Ambassador H. Winkler, Head of the International Law Department at the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

A.  The circumstances of the case

The facts of the case, as submitted by the parties, may be summarised as follows.

1. Background

On 26 October 1997 a group of homosexuals, the “Austrian Forum of Gays and Lesbians” (“Österreichisches Schwulen- und Lesbenforum”, ÖSLF) held a demonstration in St. Pölten, at which the editors of the magazine “Der 13. – Zeitung der Katholiken für Glaube und Kirche” (The 13th – Newspaper of Catholics for Faith and Church) took pictures of participants and published them together with an article written by K. D. in its issue of 13 November 1997. That article reflected a negative and hostile position towards homosexual relationships, suggesting, inter alia, that “they [homosexuals] ought to be disciplined 'gender-specifically' with whips and pizzles! (sie gehören 'geschlechtsspezifisch' mit Peitsche und Ochsenziemer zurechtgewiesen)” and that “nazi-methods should be applied to them!” It read further that “homosexuals now crawl like rats out of their holes and are fed 'lovingly' by politicians and church officials”.

Subsequently 44 homosexual persons filed a private prosecution (Privatanklage) against the author K. D. for defamation and a compensation claim under the Media Act against the owner and publisher of Der 13.”

On 13 July 1998 the Linz Regional Court (Landesgericht) found that certain passages of the article constituted the offence of insult (Beleidigung) under Section 115 of the Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch) and ordered the owner and publisher of “Der 13.” to pay compensation to four plaintiffs who could be identified on the pictures. It dismissed the compensation claim as regards the other plaintiffs and acquitted K. D. The court found that K. D. had not mentioned any of those plaintiffs' name in his article and that it could not be established that he had known that his text would be illustrated by these pictures. On pages 14-15 the judgment contained an excursus about the nature of homosexuality, referring to a book called “Lexicon of love (Lexikon der Liebe)” and the results of an opinion survey on this topic. It read, inter alia, that “in truth, homosexuality includes also the lesbian world and, of course, that of animals”, which was followed by a long passage describing in detail examples of same-sex practices among different animals.

Subsequently, politicians and representatives of the Austrian Forum of Gays and Lesbians publicly criticised the deciding judge K.-P. B. for the text and style of this judgment, which was documented in a number of press releases by the Austrian Press Agency (APA) of 13 July, 1 and 2 September 1998, including an article published by “Der Standard” with the title “The judge and the dear cattle (Der Richter und das liebe Vieh)” on 1 September 1998.

On 2 September 1998 “Der Standard” published two articles written by the first applicant, whereby the first one referred to the commentary (Kommentar) at issue on page 32, which read as follows:

“The punishment chamber (Strenge Kammer)

Samo Kobenter

It is strange how often the avowed defenders of western values are inclined to adopt draconian methods when they feel them to be jeopardised by people with different beliefs, ideas or lifestyles. If a writer in some odd rag just says he would like to flog gay people or beat them with bulls' pizzles, that would not normally be worth mentioning, other than to say that everyone is entitled to live out his sexual fantasies and obsessions as he pleases, even in words, as long as the objects or subjects of his desires derive as much pleasure from it as he does.

Where such matters are being dealt with in court, however, we might expect at the end of the twentieth century that a judge of even minimal enlightenment would, at the very least, deliver a judgment that differs more than somewhat from the traditions of medieval witch trials. A judge in Linz, K.-P. B., has achieved the feat of acquitting a defendant who was given the benefit of the doubt although no doubt was apparent – on the contrary, the judge's reasoning handed the flogger enough arguments to justify the threats of punishment he had made so enthusiastically, even if only in writing. That flies in the face, for a start, of any conception of law which sees the courtroom as more than just a punishment chamber for all possible tendencies.

Lending support to a homophobe's venomous hate campaign with outrageous examples from the animal kingdom casts doubt on the intellectual and moral integrity of the judge concerned. The fact that public clarifications are now needed to the effect that homosexuals are not animals prompts concern about the state of this country.”

On 18 September 1998 judge K.-P. B. decided that the above mentioned excursus on pages 14-15 be taken out of the judgment of 13 July 1998.

Subsequently disciplinary proceedings were opened against judge K. P. B. On 20 July 1999 the Innsbruck Court of Appeal (Oberlandesgericht), acting as disciplinary authority, imposed the disciplinary penalty of a warning. On 20 September 1999 the Supreme Court (Oberster Gerichtshof) confirmed this decision.

2. Defamation proceedings

In the meantime, judge K.-P. B. filed a private prosecution against the first applicant for defamation (Üble Nachrede) and a compensation claim under the Media Act against the second applicant on account of the above article published on 2 September 1998.

On 29 June 1999 the St. Pölten Regional Court convicted the first applicant of defamation under Section 111 §§ 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code and imposed a fine of ATS 13,500 (EUR 981) on him, suspended on one year's probationary period. It also ordered the second applicant to pay ATS 50,000 (EUR 3633) in compensation to judge K.-P. B. under Section 6 of the Media Act and to publish the judgment. It found in particular that the following statements were capable to lower judge K.-P. B. in the public esteem, constituting the slanderous reproach that he had violated his obligations under the law and the rules on professional conduct (Gesetzes- und Standespflichten), required of a judge:

1) the judgment delivered by the private prosecutor would only differ somewhat from the traditions of medieval witch trials (das vom Privatankläger gefällte Urteil würde sich nur “marginal von den Traditionen mittelalterlicher Hexenprozesse abheben”) and

2) that judge K.-P. B. would lend support to a homophobe's venomous hate campaign with outrageous examples from the animal kingdom (und dieser würde “die geifernde Hetze eines Homophoben mit haarsträubenden Belegen aus dem Tierreich stützen”).

It noted, inter alia, that even if the reasoning of that judgment contained irrelevant annotations, it could not be inferred from it that the private prosecutor K.-P. B. believed that different rights were accorded to homosexuals and heterosexuals, nor that he had compared homosexuals with animals or that he had put them on an equal footing.

On 11 November 1999 the applicants appealed against this judgment, claiming that the article at issue criticised exclusively the reasoning of the judgment and not the way in which judge K.-P. B. had conducted the trial. The statements were permissible value judgments based on facts and, thus, protected under Article 10 of the Convention. Arguing that journalistic liberty also allowed a certain degree of exaggeration and even provocation, and considering the public discussion caused by the reasoning of the judgment not only in various media but also among judges, the polemical style of the article was not disproportionate either.

On 16 February 2000 the Vienna Court of Appeal dismissed the applicants' appeal and confirmed the Regional Court's judgment. It found that an average reader, interested in the subject-matter, would understand by the first statement that the private prosecutor had grossly violated fundamental procedural rights, such as the principles of impartiality and adversarial hearings, which were regularly breached in medieval witch trials. Thus, this reproach of violating the rules on professional conduct required of a judge consisted in concrete facts, which were not proved true by the records of the trial. The second statement was not only a value judgment, but also insinuated that judge K.-P. B. had sided with the accused K. D. and had, thus, been partial. As it was not mentioned in the article that judge K.-P. B. had impartially conducted the trial and that only certain passages of the judgment were subject to that criticism, the statements could not be considered as value judgments based on facts. Rather, in their context, they were disparaging statements of facts, falling outside the scope of protection of Article 10 of the Convention. Since certain passages of the above judgment proved to be legally superfluous, as affirmed by the private prosecutor's decision of 18 September 1998 taking them out, they could have been subject to (fair) comment.

B.  Relevant domestic law

Section 6 § 1 of the Media Act provides for the strict liability of the publisher in cases of defamation; the victim can thus claim damages from him. In this context “defamation” has been defined in Section 111 of the Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch), 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."

COMPLAINT

The applicants complained under Article 10 of the Convention that the Austrian courts' judgments violated their right to freedom of expression.

THE LAW

The applicants complained that the Austrian courts' judgments convicting the first applicant of defamation under Section 111 §§ 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code and imposing a fine of EUR 981 and ordering the second applicant to pay EUR 3,633 by way of compensation violated their right to freedom of expression under Article 10, which, as far as material, 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.”

The Government accepted that the above judgments constituted an interference with the applicants' rights under Article 10. This interference was legitimate within the meaning Article 10 § 2 of the Convention as it was provided for by law and served the protection of the reputation and rights of others as well as the reputation and impartiality of the judiciary. The measures were necessary in a democratic society and the Austrian courts gave sufficient and convincing reasons for their judgments. In particular they found that the impugned statements constituted untrue statements of fact, namely the reproach against the judge that he had failed to take into account fundamental procedural guarantees and that he had violated the principles of impartiality and an adversarial hearing. The allegations were not admissible value judgments either as they lacked a sufficient factual basis. In particular, it did not emanate from the article at issue that the judge had conducted the proceedings in an objective manner, relying on the existing facts, and that only one passage of the reasoning was intended to be criticised. Moreover, the details of the impugned judgment and the circumstances underlying the previous criminal proceedings were certainly not known to the general public to an extent required for such serious accusations against a judge, including an attack on the reputation of the judiciary. When balancing the parties' interests, namely the applicants' interest in disseminating information and ideas on matters of public interest on the one hand, and the interest of the judge concerned in protecting his reputation and the standing of the judiciary in general on the other, the courts found in favour of the latter interests. Furthermore, in the light of the case as a whole and the economic situation of the applicants, the sanctions imposed were also proportionate.

The applicants contested that the Austrian courts' judgments had been necessary in a democratic society. They contended that the impugned statements constituted value judgments which had a factual basis, namely the reasoning of the judgment concerned. This factual basis was also known to the readers because it had been published on several occasions, including by “Der Standard” in its issue of 1 September and another article on 2 September 1998 which explicitly referred to the commentary at issue on page 32. Further, the domestic courts as well as the Government had disregarded that the article was earmarked as a “commentary”, thus, indicating to any knowledgeable reader that it contained a critical assessment by the author. In the applicants' view, the courts had also ignored that the impugned statement only concerned the judgment of the private prosecutor and not the way in which he had conducted the proceedings. Therefore the applicants did not share the argument of the Government and the findings of the domestic courts that they had reproached the judge with not having observed the principle of an adversarial hearing or with having been partial. Moreover, they considered the Government's view to be incomprehensible and overstepping the requirements of this Court's case-law in respect of Article 10 of the Convention that their critical remarks should have contained the fact that the proceedings had been (otherwise) conducted in a fair manner. In conclusion, the applicants' convictions were disproportionate and not necessary in a democratic society.

The Court considers, in the light of the parties' submissions, that the complaint raises serious issues of fact and law under the Convention, the determination of which requires an examination of the merits. The Court concludes therefore that this complaint is not manifestly ill-founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 of the Convention. No other ground for declaring it inadmissible has been established.

For these reasons, the Court unanimously

Declares the application admissible, without prejudicing the merits of the case.

Søren Nielsen Christos Rozakis 
 Registrar President

KOBENTER v. AUTRICHE DECISION


KOBENTER v. AUTRICHE DECISION