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ECtHR Finds Russian Regulator Unlawfully Issued Warnings Against Newspaper Reporting on Extremist Organisations

ECtHR Finds Russian Regulator Unlawfully Issued Warnings Against Newspaper Reporting on Extremist Organisations

The European Court of Human Rights has handed down judgment today in the case of Novaya Gazeta and ZAO Novaya Gazeta v Russia.

Regulating Independent Media

One of the key issues raised by the case was the extent to which state regulators can lawfully regulate independent media. Novaya Gazeta newspaper had received a warning from Rozkomnadzor, Russia’s state media regulator, who alleged it had disseminated extremist material. The state regulator issued the warning following the publication of a story about politically extreme organisations in Russia. The purpose of that story was to bring the unlawful activities of these organisations to the attention of the public and the timing of the publication was telling – it was published on the anniversary of the murder of two persons affiliated with the newspaper allegedly by members of an extremist organisation.

Because two warnings within one year from the regulator are enough to trigger legal proceedings that can result in closure of a media outlet, Novaya Gazeta challenged the warning in the domestic courts. It did so on the basis the regulator failed to take into account the context and purpose of the article and argued that quotes from extremist organisations in the article did not amount to dissemination of extremist material. The Russian courts rejected their arguments and the newspaper went to the European Court.

Our Intervention

Media Defence, along with Russian NGO the Mass Media Defence Centre (MMDC), submitted an amicus brief arguing that state controlled regulation of the media can constitute a serious threat to press freedom. In the brief, Media Defence and MMDC made three points – (i) that self-regulation is the most appropriate and least restrictive means of regulating the press; (ii) that warnings issued by media regulators can have a chilling effect on journalists and media organisations and (iii) in assessing restrictions on free expression, the Court should have particular regard to such warnings.

The Judgment

In finding a violation of the newspaper’s right to freedom of expression, the Court emphasised that judges should be slow to interfere with the reporting methods deployed by journalists and the techniques they use. Connected to that principle, it noted that there was “no reason whatsoever” to take issue with the use of quotations from an extremist organisation’s official manifesto in an investigation into that organisation. The Court also considered the finding by the regulator that the publication of far right symbols in the article was unlawful failed to have regard to the context within which those symbols were published. Overall, the Court expressed concerns that the assessment carried out by the regulator was “deficient and ran counter to the principles of Article 10”.

Pádraig Hughes, Media Defence’s Legal Director, said that “Novaya Gazeta was unlawfully sanctioned for writing about extremist groups in an informed and responsible way. The Court’s analysis of how the regulator came to its decision to sanction that newspaper reinforces a widely held view that state bodies should not regulate the press.”

You can find the Media Defence and MMDC intervention here.

For further information please contact Pádraig Hughes at padraig.hughes@mediadefence.org

If you are a journalist or citizen journalist in need of support, please click here.

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