Online comment forums to continue despite ECHR ruling

A MID-JUNE ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg that some said would force media to close comment sections on their web sites will have no such effect in Slovakia, participants in a discussion organised by the Sme daily argued. 

Illustrative stock photoIllustrative stock photo (Source: Sme)

The ECHR ruled on dispute between the Delfi AS company and Estonia. The administrator of the Delfi AS website was found liable for the defamatory comments under an article where the owner of a public ferry transport firm was insulted.

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According to some interpretations, the verdict indicates that the media are responsible for the comments posted by anonymous users. Such explanation is, however, not right, said Martin Husovec, lawyer of the European Information Society Institute.

“You can interpret it in this way only if you do not know the context,” he added.

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Consequences of the ruling

The ECHR ruling has raised several concerns. Some Slovak analysts predict that it will lead to self-censorship of the media though the laws will not be changed. Husovec explained that the Estonian Supreme Court punished Delfi AS for not removing the defamatory comments immediately and from its own initiative, but only after receiving the notice.

The current valid laws in Slovakia, and also in other European Union member states stipulate that the websites are not responsible for everything said in discussions. Though the ECHR verdict will have negative consequences, it does not mean that the media will be automatically punished for not removing the comment immediately, Husovec said.

“We [Slovakia] cannot issue the same verdict because of the EU legislation which has its own clear rules,” Husovec continued, adding that the Estonian court should have also applied them. It however applied them incorrectly, he said.

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One of the main concerns Husovec has is that some countries may try to abuse the verdict.

There are two important facts emerging from the ruling, according to Filip Struhárik of the Denník N daily. First, the fine imposed by ECHR was not high, only about €320. Moreover, most of the problematic comments were direct attacks, whereby journalists did not have a reason to check whether the comments are true or not.

Tomáš Czwitkovics, deputy editor-in-chief of the Trend weekly, finds it problematic that Delfi AS was not asked to delete the problematic comments, but was immediately punished by the Estonian courts.

“This may be abused as somebody may say that the comment should have been removed within 30 minutes after being published, and based on this ruling the media would be fined,” Czwitkovics said.

Moreover, the verdict indicates that the publishers would have to check whether the comment does not interfere into the human rights or not.

No stop to user comments

The participants in the discussion however do not expect that the ruling will result in closing the user comment sections below the media stories.

“The comment sections are interesting from business point of view because many readers scorn the media that are not open for comments,” Struhárik said. Moreover, though the comments are sometimes annoying, they help journalists in their work, but also readers to understand the problems which were not appropriately explained in the story, he added.

Several media already check the discussions and remove the inappropriate comments. Sme, for example, tries to moderate the comments, and it even does not open the space for comments under the stories which may be somehow problematic. At Trend, they have adopted several measures to allow readers send notifications about defamatory comment.

“The question however is whether the number of lawsuits will not increase,” Czwitkovics said when commenting on the possible impacts of the verdict in Slovakia.

Struhárik adds that many people may interpret the ruling in various ways. He would not be surprised if in the future some judges fine media  with a relatively high amount in a case where a politician finds defamatory comments on the internet. 

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