Minority shareholder in a company ordered to pay damages for criticising the CEO in the press in breach of the right to freedom of expression (ECHR Case Law)

In Chamber judgment dated 30.6.2020, in the case of Petro Carbo Chem S.E. v. Romania (application no. 21768/12) the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been: a violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The case concerned a civil court order issued to the applicant company to pay symbolic compensation to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Oltchim company (which was the largest chemicals factory in Romania) for criticising the CEO’s management of the company in the context of a media conflict.

The Court found that the applicant company’s comments had concerned a question of public interest relating to the free flow of information and ideas in the sphere of the activities of powerful commercial companies, and also relating to the accountability of the directors of such companies, which necessitated a high level of protection of the freedom of expression.

The Court also held that the finding against the applicant company had amounted to interference in the exercise of the company’s right to freedom of expression.

It noted that the Romanian courts had not properly balanced the need to protect the CEO’s reputation with the necessity of ensuring compliance with the rules of the Convention, to the effect that very weighty reasons were required to justify imposing restrictions on freedom of expression in the framework of questions of public interest with regard to a major company.

The Court dismissed the applicant company’s complaint under Article 8 (right to respect for private life) of an attack on its reputation, on the grounds that it was manifestly ill-founded.

The Court noted that the comments made by the Oltchim CEO concerning the applicant company had also concerned questions of public interest and that the limits of acceptable criticism of that company were broader given that it was a major concern owning many industrial sites in Europe and was simultaneously a shareholder in Oltchim.

The Court held that the finding of a violation was sufficient just satisfaction for any damage which the applicant company might have sustained. (ECHR/pixabay)


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