11 July, 2019
On 10 July, the Department of Civil Cases of the Supreme Court (Senate) annulled the judgment of the Riga Regional Court of January 24, 2017, which partially satisfied the claim and from SIA “TV NET” (TV NET) in favour of the plaintiff, VSIA “Latvian National Opera and Ballet” (LNOB), compensation of EUR 50,000 was recovered in connection with an opinion published by TV NET on renting premises for a private event of a Russian artist on July 29, 2014. The case has been referred for re-examination to the Riga Regional Court.
In its judgment, the Senate analyses the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the case-law of the Senate, and acknowledges that the Riga Regional Court has not taken into account several aspects when examining the case.
The Senate points out that the conclusions of the appellate court stating that the published article violated the limits of permissible criticism by expressing an excessively rude opinion were made without sufficient justification, as the court have not correctly interpreted and applied provisions of substantive law, disregarded case-law and has not given due assessment of the arguments, circumstances and evidence in the case.
Liability also arises for expressing an unfounded, rude and openly offensive opinion without any factual basis. The Senate agrees with the arguments stated in TV NET's cassation appeal that the judgment does not reveal which of the words or phrases used in the disputed excerpt are to be considered rude and disproportionately offensive to each of the applicants without sufficient factual basis, namely which of them are offensive to VSIA “LNOB” and which to natural persons.
The Senate also points out that it is important to distinguish whether the offensive statements or comparisons made in the article relate to a person's private or family life or professional activity, and important criteria for assessing the limits of permissible criticism are the purpose of the publication and reasons for choosing offensive statements. The Regional Court have not properly assessed whether the main purpose of the article was to draw the public's attention to the treatment of a cultural and artistic object important to the society by the members of the board of the state capital company, or to personally offend the plaintiffs. Nor has the court assessed whether the article in question contributed to the public debate about events that caused public concern. In addition, the Senate points out that the purpose of the article and the factual basis for the choice of expressions used in the article must be verified by assessing the article as a whole, and not only the three paragraphs or individual phrases indicated in the application. The genre of the article and the means of artistic expression used in the article must also be taken into account.
In its judgment, the Senate agrees with the argument of the cassation appeal that the Regional Court incorrectly determined the limits of criticism of the members of the board of VSIA “LNOB”. The Senate recognizes that the status of a public person is applicable to a wider range of persons than just politicians. This also follows from the findings established in the case-law of the ECHR regarding the permissible limits of criticism of public persons, which have not been taken into account by the appellate court. The present case does not concern just any official, but members of the board of VSIA “LNOB”, a state capital company which, as the Regional Court has concluded and which is not challenged in the cassation appeal, has a special status in the sphere of national culture. The conduct of such officials on matters of public importance is subject to close scrutiny by the public and journalists, and they must accept more criticism than the average citizen and have a greater degree of tolerance.
In its judgment, the Senate draws attention to the criteria for determining the amount of non-material damage for violation of right to honour and dignity (for a legal person -reputation), including the need to assess the significance, nature, severity and consequences of the infringed rights and interests. In the event that the court finds the existence of non-material damage, the compensation awarded must not be disproportionate and must ensure a balance between freedom of expression and the protection of honour and dignity. In particular, it must be ascertained that the effect of the compensation imposed in the present case is not such as to deprive the defendant entirely of his right to freedom of expression and to deter him from commenting on matters of public importance. The amount awarded must fulfil three main requirements: justice, prevention and conciliation.
The circumstances of the case are as follows:
On November 7, 2014, VSIA "Latvian National Opera and Ballet" (before the change of the name - "Latvian National Opera"; hereinafter also - LNOB and LNO), Zigmars Liepins, Inese Eglite and Daina Markova filed a claim in the Riga City Vidzeme District Court against SIA "TV NET" for apology and recovery of non-material damage for insult of honour and dignity. The plaintiffs requested the court to impose an obligation on SIA TV NET to publish an apology for insulting the honour and dignity of VSIA “Latvian National Opera”, Zigmars Liepins, Inese Eglite and Daina Markova in the section Opinions/Commentaries of the Internet portal www.tvnet.lv, to recover material compensation for insulting the honour and dignity of 129,873 euros to VSIA “Latvian National Opera” and 1 euro to each plaintiff, as well as to recover legal costs and expenses related to the conduct of the case – for the payment of an advocate's assistance. The claim states that on August 4, 2014, SIA “TV NET” published an article on the Internet portal www.tvnet.lv entitled “How the Latvian National Opera became the public house of Putin's court”, in which a journalist writing under the pseudonym Olivers Everts unacceptably rudely and insultingly referred to the management of VSIA “Latvian National Opera” for renting the Opera premises for organizing a private event of a Russian artist on July 29, 2014.
The claim of the Riga City Vidzeme District Court of March 10, 2016 has been fully satisfied.
Having examined the case under appellate procedure, the Riga Regional Court partially satisfied the claim on January 24, 2017.
The Senate examined the case (SKC-40/2019; C30292615) in connection with the cassation appeal filed by SIA “TV NET” regarding the judgment of the Collegium of Civil Cases of the Riga Regional Court of January 24, 2017.
Information prepared by Baiba Kataja, the Press Secretary of the Supreme Court
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