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Freedom of expression of employees – Matuz v. Hungary

In Matuz v Hungary, the European Court of Human Rights elaborated on extent to which journalists can invoke freedom of expression when criticizing their employer.

 

Facts

The applicant was a journalist. He had been employed with a state owned broadcasting company as a moderator of a talk show dealing with cultural life in Hungary. At the same time, he was the chairman of a trade union of journalists which was active in the broadcasting company.

The applicant’s contract obliged him not to disclose any information he had obtained in relation to his position and stipulated that the applicant be dismissed for any breach of the confidentiality clause.

A new cultural director was appointed. The applicant as well as the editor in chief of the TV show he was hosting complained to the president and to the board of the broadcasting company about actions of the cultural director which they perceived as censorship. A report about the letter by the editor in chief was published in an online-publication and the Hungarian Union of Electronic Journalists called upon the board of the broadcasting company to end censorship.

In 2004, the applicant published a book which contained extracts from interviews which had not been broadcast in the program, an exchange of letters with the cultural director in which changes to the program were discussed which the cultural director had suggested and the applicant’s opinion on censorship within the program.

Shortly after the publication of this book, the applicant was dismissed on the grounds that he had breached the confidentiality clause in his employment contract. The applicant challenged this dismissal before domestic courts but his claim was rejected in all instances.

He filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights, advancing the argument that the dismissal constituted a breach of his right to freedom of expression (article 10 ECHR)

 

Law

The Court examined whether the applicant’s right to freedom of expression had been interfered with. The Hungarian government had argued that no interference had taken place since the book had been published and the information contained therein had become accessible to the public.

The European Court of Human Rights rejected this argument stating that the applicant’s had been dismissed because of his exercising his right to freedom of expression. It went on to examine whether the interference had been justified. It briefly concluded that there had been a sufficient legal basis for the dismissal in the Hungarian Labour Code and that the interference had served a legitimate aim, namely the protection of the reputation of others.

The Court went on to examine whether the interference had been necessary in a democratic society. While reiterating that freedom of expression was of paramount importance in a democratic society, it also stated that employees owe their employers a certain measure of loyalty and restraint, which makes restrictions of the freedom of expressions in principle permissible. The quality of judicial review was of particular importance when balancing these two considerations. Relevant factors to take into consideration are

 

  • The public interest in the disclosed information
  • The authenticity of the information disclosed
  • The damage caused by imparting the information (if any)
  • The motive actuating the disclosure of information
  • Whether the disclosure of information was the last resort
  • The severity of the sanction imposed

The European Court of Human Rights stated that there was a public interest in information about possible censorship in a public broadcasting service. It pointed out that the accuracy of the information had never been contested. As to the damage, the Court noted that domestic courts had referred to damage to the reputation of the broadcasting company. It stated, however, that the information about possible censorship had already been made available by the Union of Electronic Journalists. The applicant had acted in good faith and disclosing the information to the public had been the last resort, because the applicant’s prior complaints to the Board of Directors and the President of the broadcasting company had not borne any fruit. The Court also pointed out that the dismissal of the applicant had been a severe sanction. Finally, the European Court of Human Rights attached importance to the fact that the domestic courts had dealt with the dispute from a purely contractual point of view, without giving any consideration to the aspect of freedom of expression. In view of these facts, the European Court of Human Rights concluded that there had been a violation of the freedom of expression as enshrined in article 10 ECHR.

 

 

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