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Strasbourg finds in favour of two journalists

The Strasbourg court did not agree with Swiss judicial decisions. imagepoint

The European Court of Human Rights has criticised Switzerland for violating the freedom of expression of two journalists, in separate cases dating back to 1997.

This content was published on April 25, 2006 - 16:17

In the more publicised case, the court ruled by four votes to three in favour of a SonntagsZeitung correspondent, who had been fined SFr800 ($632) for publishing "official confidential deliberations".

Martin Stoll had received and published details from a confidential document put together by the then Swiss ambassador to the United States, Carlo Jagmetti, over Second World War era dormant accounts held in Swiss banks.

One of the headlines read: Carlo Jagmetti insults the Jews.

The document had been compiled at the height of negotiations between, among others, the Swiss authorities, the World Jewish Congress and Swiss banks over restitution due to Holocaust victims and their survivors for unclaimed assets.

In particular, the ambassador was cited as saying that a "war" had to be led both internally and externally over the issue.

Dormant accounts

The document contained strategies to try to solve the problem of dormant Jewish accounts but its aggressive vocabulary put Jagmetti under intense scrutiny, and he resigned several days later.

The Strasbourg court said the central question before it was to determine whether the interference with Stoll's right to freedom of expression had been "necessary in a democratic society".

It found that the confidentiality of diplomatic relations was justified in principle, but could not be protected at any price. It also noted that the role of the media as critic and watchdog also applied to matters of foreign policy.

Although the penalty on Stoll had not been very harsh, the court repeated that what mattered was not that he had been sentenced to as minor penalty, but that he had been convicted at all.

The conviction had amounted "to a kind of censure" which would be likely to discourage him from making criticisms of that nature in the future.

Official secret

In a separate case, the court ruled unanimously in favour of Viktor Dammann, a reporter with the Zurich tabloid Blick.

He was prosecuted for inciting an administrative assistant at the Zurich public prosecutor's office to disclose an official secret.

Dammann had been investigating a robbery that had taken place at a central post office in which SFr53 million had been stolen.

Although he was acquitted at first instance, he was later sentenced by the Zurich Court of Appeal to a fine of SFr500.

In that court's opinion, Damann as an experienced court reporter, must have known that the assistant was bound by professional secrecy, that information on those involved in criminal proceedings was confidential and that no public prosecutor would have agreed to comply with his request.

However, the Strasbourg court considered that the Swiss government had to bear a large share of responsibility for the indiscretion committed by the assistant at the public prosecutor's office, particularly as Dammann had not tricked, threatened or pressurised her into disclosing the desired information.

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Key facts

Article 293 of the Swiss Penal Code punishes a person who, without having the right, publishes all or part of a document or official decision that has been declared confidential by the authorities.
Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms states: Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.

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In brief

In both cases (Stoll v. Switzerland and Dammann v. Switzerland), the Strasbourg court held that there had been a violation of Article ten (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In Stoll's case, the judgement was made by four votes to three. In Dammann's case, it was unanimous.

A chamber of seven judges gave judgement in both cases.

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