STRASBOURG 's Latvian daily newspaper Diena has won its court battle in an important freedom of expression case.
The battle began following the publication of an article entitled 'How to steal millions' in Diena, 13 July 1998, in which journalist Aivars Ozolins examined the role of Laimonis Strujevics in the privatization of the Latvijas Nafta company. A series of other articles followed, which suggested that the process would result in a loss to the state budget of some 8 million lats.
On 22 April 1999, Strujevics instituted proceedings in Riga against Diena and Ozolins, seeking retraction of information published which he regarded as defamatory, an apology for the statements made, and "moral" damages of approximately 10,000 lats.
During subsequent hearings and appeals, many of which demanded retractions and compensation payments to Strujevics, the case made its way further along the legal process, eventually reaching the Latvian Supreme Court Senate, which dismissed an appeal by Diena and Ozolins on points of law.
However, European judges overturned that ruling, holding unanimously that this was a violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights, as interference with the applicants' freedom of expression was not "necessary in a democratic society."
Furthermore, the European court held that while the content of Ozolins' articles had been injurious and accusatory, it had not exceeded the bounds of journalistic freedom. It said that Strujevics had attracted criticism not only in the mass media, but also within government and that Latvian courts in the subsequent case had placed Strujevics' interests higher than freedom of expression and public interest.
As a result of the ruling, Diena was awarded 10,292 euros in respect of pecuniary damages, and 3,000 euros for costs and expenses which will have to come from the Latvian taxpayer.
Though undoubtedly a victory for freedom of expression, the ruling cannot help but raise serious questions about a legal system that consistently backed Strujevics, only to have its rulings ultimately reversed in Strasbourg.