Tuesday 30 September 2008

The Perils of an Interview

Being interviewed in a newspaper can have serious consequences. Such was the experience of Nadji Chalabi in whose case the Court recently issued its judgment. Chalabi was a former member of the Board of Directors of the Grand Mosque of the French city of Lyon. In an interview with a local magazine he criticised the director of the Mosque, calling his management dodgy and observed that he lacked knowledge about Islam. The director won a defamation case against Chalabi and Chalabi was ordered to pay damages to him.

The European Court unanimously found a violation of Article 10 in this case. It held that the question of the management of a religious institution was a question of public interest both to the religious community involved and the public at large. This led to a higher level of protection of the expression concerned. Moreover, it labelled the director as a public figure due to his representative and institutional functions. The remarks of Chalabi should be seen as a value judgment which had a sufficient factual basis: an investigation by the authorities was carried out at the relevant time concerning possible misappropriation and fraud. As to the wording of the comments, the Court did not find them clearly insulting. Thus the conviction of Mr Chalabi had been contrary to Article 10.

In my view, the case is notable in three respects. First, it shows that the wheelings and dealings of religious communities concerning their management and funding (as opposed to their religious functions) are considered by the Court of public interest. Thus, it cannot be claimed that such matters are only of internal concern to the community concerned. This means that public debate on such issues receives a higher level of protection under the Convention than would otherwise be the case. Secondly, a public investigation or ongoing judicial proceedings against a person may serve as a sufficient factual basis for non-excessive value jugdments about that person, nothwithstanding the presumption of innocence. Thirdly, leaders of religious communities who publicly represent their constituencies are considered to be public figures under the Convention who should be able to cope with more criticism than the average person. The Court has already often stressed that point in respect of e.g. politicians, but now explicitly broadens the notion to religious leaders who operate in public.

Although the judgment is available only in French, a press release on the case can be found here. For the involved magazine's (Lyon Mag) own reporting on the case, click here.