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Karsai v. Hungary

The HHC’s co-chair represented László Karsai, is a Hungarian historian and university professor before the European Court of Human Rights in a case concerning the applicant’s freedom of expression. In 2004 there was a public debate in Hungary as to whether a statue should be set up to commemorate the former Prime Minister Pál Teleki, who had cooperated with Nazi Germany and had been involved in the passing of anti-Semitic legislation. Mr. Karsai published an article criticizing the right-wing press, including the author B.T., for praising the politician’s role and for making anti-Semitic statements.

B.T. brought a civil action against the applicant, claiming that his reputation had been harmed by a passage in the article that could be referred to him and included the expression “bashing the Jews”. The Regional Court did not grant the claim, holding in essence that the impugned statement had not concerned B.T. himself but the right-wing media as such. The decision was later reversed by the Court of Appeal, which held that the statement could be seen as relating to B.T. and that the applicant had failed to prove that it was true. It ordered the applicant to publish a rectification at his own expense and to bear the legal costs. The Court of Appeal’s decision was upheld by the Supreme Court in June 2006.

The applicant complained that the Hungarian court decisions amounted to a violation of his right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 10 of the Convention. In particular, he argued that the obligation to arrange for a public rectification was a disproportionately severe sanction, putting his credibility as a historian at stake. In its decision delivered on 1 December 2009, the Court did not see a reason to depart from the Hungarian courts’ findings that the impugned statement in the applicant’s article, made with regard to the right-wing press in general, could also be considered as indirectly referring to the plaintiff B.T. and thereby affecting his reputation. However, contrary to the domestic courts, it could not find that the dispute concerned a pure statement of fact, an assessment that would limit the protection under Article 10. In the article the applicant had argued that the apology of a politician with well-known anti-Semitic convictions amounted to participation in the process, ongoing in the extreme right-wing press, of trivializing his racist policies.

The Court noted that the applicant wrote the article in question in the course of a debate of utmost public interest, concerning Hungary’s coming to terms with its totalitarian past. It therefore considered that its publication deserved the high level of protection granted to the press in view of its functions in a democratic society. The Court also pointed out that the plaintiff B.T. by being the author of articles widely published in the popular daily press as part of the debate had voluntarily exposed himself to public criticism. In this context even harsh criticism expressed directly would have been protected by Article 10 of the Convention, while the applicant’s disagreement with B.T.’s views had been phrased only indirectly.

With regard to the nature and severity of the sanction, the Court considered that the obligation to publish a rectification affected the applicant’s professional credibility as a historian and was therefore capable of producing an intimidating effect. The Court concluded that the domestic courts had not convincingly established that protecting the reputation of a participant in a public debate was more important than the applicant’s right to freedom of expression and the general interest in promoting this freedom where issues of public interest were concerned. Accordingly there had been a violation of Article 10. The Court awarded the applicant 4,000 Euros in respect of non-pecuniary damage.

Karsai v. Hungary – Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights


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Hungarian Helsinki Committee