ECHR Rules That Portuguese Defamation Judgement Violated Right to Freedom of Expression

By: Firdevs Okatan

Impunity Watch News Staff Writer

STRASBOURG, France – On March 19, 2024, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) delivered its judgment in the case of Almeida Arroja v. Portugal, raising important questions about the balance between the right to freedom of expression and the protection of individual reputation.

An aerial view of the European Court of Human Rights building in Strasbourg, France. | Photo Courtesy of European Court of Human Rights.

The case revolves around the conviction of José Pedro Almeida Arroja, an economist and university professor, for his comments on a private TV channel about a law firm and its director, P.R., a known politician and member of the European Parliament.

The background of the case lies in a dispute over the construction of a pediatric wing at São João Hospital in Porto. Almeida Arroja, chair of an association supporting the construction, criticized the legal advice provided by the law firm C., directed by P.R., accusing it of politically motivated interference. The domestic courts in Portugal found Almeida Arroja guilty of aggravated defamation and causing offense to a legal person, leading to his appeal to the ECHR.

The ECHR judgment focused on whether Almeida Arroja’s freedom of expression, as guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, was unjustly violated. The Court acknowledged the importance of protecting reputation but emphasized that restrictions on freedom of expression must be carefully weighed, especially when public figures and matters of public interest are involved.

The Court observed that Almeida Arroja’s comments, although potentially harmful to P.R. and the law firm’s reputation, were part of a debate of significant public interest. The Court also considered P.R.’s status as a public figure, which requires a higher tolerance for criticism. Crucially, it found that the Portuguese courts had not balanced these factors correctly and that the penalties imposed had a disproportionate “chilling effect” on free speech.

The ruling has highlighted the complex relationship between the right to free expression and the need to protect individuals’ and legal entities’ reputations. It underscores the ECHR’s approach that public discussion, especially on matters of public concern, should be solid and that public figures like politicians must tolerate more scrutiny and potentially damaging statements.

This judgment does not only impact Portuguese law but resonates across Europe, where similar tensions exist between freedom of expression and the protection of reputation. It serves as a reminder of the delicate and nuanced judgments required in upholding fundamental human rights in a democratic society.

For further information, please see:

ECHR – Case of Almeida Arroja V. Portugal – 19 Mar. 2024

ECHR – Judgment concerning Portugal – 19 Mar. 2024

ECHRCaseLaw –  The size of the criminal conviction against the defendant for defamation of a lawyer and law firm for his comments on a television show was disproportionate. Violation of freedom of expression – 22 Mar. 2024

European Convention on Human Rights – 1950





Author: Sydney Krause