By: Christian González
Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor
STRASBOURG, France – The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has made a ruling finding that the 2013 criminal conviction of Mytilene-based journalist, Efstratios Balaskas – for insulting a high school headmaster – was violative of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Mr. Balaskas is a journalist who lives and works in the Greek city of Mytilene, located on the island of Lesbos on the northeastern corner of the Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey. He was formerly the editor-in-chief of the Lesbos-based daily newspaper, Empros. On November 17th, 2020, he wrote and published an article in Empros called “The headmaster of the 6th High School of Mytilene, B.M., attacks, through his personal blog, the ‘ultimate lie of the Polytechnic school.’” This article was a response to a blog post written by the headmaster of a local high school just two days earlier, identified only as “B.M” by the ECHR.
The blog post in question was a negative opinion piece regarding the anniversary of the Athens Polytechnic Uprising of 1973. The Uprising was a student demonstration, against the government junta, that led to the restoration of the country’s parliamentary democracy. Since then, November 17th is a national holiday in Greece. In Mr. Balaskas’ response piece, he characterizes B.M. as a “neo-Nazi” and the “theoretician of the entity ‘Golden Dawn,’” a far-right and pro-fascist political party in Greece. B.M. responded by filing a criminal complaint against Mr. Balaskas for slanderous defamation.
The Criminal Court of First Instance of Mytilene heard the case on November 27th, 2013, and ruled in favor of B.M., finding that Mr. Balaskas’ characterizations were value judgments based on false allegations. The Criminal Court rejected Mr. Balaskas’ argument that there was a legitimate interest in informing the public of B.M.’s political leanings and changed the offense from slanderous defamation (a punishable offense under the Greek Penal Code § 363) to insult (an offense under § 361), and sentenced Mr. Balaskas to a six-month prison sentence. Mr. Balaskas made an appeal to the North Aegean Misdemeanor Court of Appeal on July 11th, 2016. The Court of Appeals considered B.M.’s history of posting anti-Semitic, pro-Aryan, and pro-Golden Dawn posts, including a post where B.M. stated, “IT IS AN HONOUR TO BE CALLED A NATIONAL-SOCIALIST.” Despite holding that Mr. Balaskas’ article was a value judgment based on factual findings, the Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s holding and reduced the sentence to three months. A further appeal was dismissed by the Greek Supreme Court, stating that the Court of Appeals’ findings were proper.
The ECHR found that Mr. Balaskas properly brought his interest as a journalist with an interest in informing the public of the national-socialist leanings of B.M., a public figure, to each of the Greek Courts. In doing so, Mr. Balaskas raised, in substance, his freedom of expression rights guaranteed under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The ECHR stated that in circumstances such as this, national courts have to conduct a balancing test between freedom of expression rights under Article 10 and privacy protection rights under Article 8. The ECHR found that the Greek courts failed to properly consider Mr. Balaskas’ article as a whole, instead focusing solely on the characterizing descriptions of B.M. It further felt that the Greek courts did not weigh in the intent of B.M. to create controversy through his blog post and that Mr. Balaskas’ language did not rise to the level of insult as to constitute an offense under Greek law, nor were the sentences given justified.
The ECHR noted that this was one of several cases where the courts of Greece have violated Article 10 through their rulings. It awarded Mr. Balaskas 1,603.58 euros (1,907.20 USD) in pecuniary damages and 10,000 euros (11,893.36 USD) in non-pecuniary damages.
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