A journalist’s libel conviction for describing a wine as ‘shit’ has been quashed by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
European Court: conviction quashed
Hungarian journalist Péter Uj was fiercely critical of a wine made by the state-owned T. Zrt wine company.
He wrote that the wine ‘had been enough to make me cry: sour, blunt and over-oxidised stuff, bad-quality ingredients collected from all kinds of leftovers, grey mould plus a bit of sugar from Szerencs, musty barrel – but because we are still there … hundreds of thousands of Hungarians drink [this] shit with pride.’
He was convicted of defamation in June 2009 in the Budapest district court for the article which had appeared in January 2008 in an opinion column in national newspaper Népszabadság. The court found that the criticism ‘went beyond the boundaries of journalistic opinion’.
Uj appealed and the following November the Budapest regional court changed the conviction to libel.
This judgement was upheld in the Hungarian Supreme Court in May 2010.
In its judgment on 19 July the European Court – Europe’s supreme court for human rights abuses – observed that the wine company had ‘the right to defend itself against defamatory allegations and that there was a general interest in protecting the commercial success and viability of companies’.
But it said ‘there was a difference between damaging a person’s reputation, with the repercussions that that could have on their dignity, and a company’s commercial reputation, which has no moral dimension.’
The court found that Uj’s intention was ‘satirical…that the applicant’s primary aim was to raise awareness about the disadvantages of State ownership rather than to denigrate the quality of the products of the company in the minds of the readers.’
In finding a violation of Uj’s right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the Court ordered the Republic of Hungary to pay Uj €3,580 in costs.
The case is a direct echo of the celebrated case of 2003 in which French magazine Lyon Mag was taken to court by Beaujolais producers for describing their wine as ‘vin de merde’. The case was finally settled in the magazine’s favour in 2005.
Written by Panos Kakaviatos