The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Thursday delivered its judgement, wherein it held that the freedom of expression of an eyewitness to a road accident is protected by Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights (Convention). The ECHR unanimously ruled that there had been a violation of Article 10 of the Convention.
The case concerns the consequences for an eyewitness to a road accident of telling a journalist about the driver’s identity. The Applicant, Alla Anatoliyivna Udovychenko, a Ukrainian national, witnessed a road accident in Rivne where a pedestrian was severely injured. The accident made big headlines in the media. Udovychenko visited the victim in hospital, and over there she told a journalist that she saw the son of a former member of Parliament B getting out of the driver’s side of the car involved in the accident.
B and his son filed a complaint against Udovychenko for making a false statement about the involvement of B’s son in the accident. The Rivne City Court, following the principle of “presumption of falsity,” asked Udovychenko to justify her statements made to the journalist under Article 277 of the Civil Code. Later, the Rivne City Court held Udovychenko’s statement as untrue and damaged B’s honour, dignity and reputation and ordered her to pay damages amounting to approximately 9,790 euros (EUR). After all the appeals were unsuccessful, Udovychenko filed an application before ECHR.
The ECHR observed that for Udovychenko to prove what she believed she had seen with her own eyes, as required by the national courts, would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to do. The ECHR stressed that,
Allowing witnesses of events potentially involving criminal offences to convey publicly, in good faith, what they had directly observed, unless bound by the secrecy of an investigation, was an important aspect of the protection of freedom of expression and, in certain circumstances, could be in the public interest.In the absence of any allegation of bad faith on the applicant’s part, to require her to prove the truthfulness of her statement about the circumstances of the road accident she had witnessed a requirement that would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to fulfil had not been consistent with the principles laid down in the Court’s case-law.
The ECHR further noted the inappropriateness and severity of the consequences that Udovychenko had been made to bear, i.e., she had to pay considerable damages compared to her salary and had been banned from travelling abroad. The ECHR held that Ukraine was to pay the applicant 14,300 euros (EUR) for pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage and EUR 3,450 for costs and expenses.