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Iceland: Editor’s liability for defamation after child sex abuse allegations breached human rights law

A web editor, made liable for defamation after suggesting an Icelandic politician was responsible for child sex abuse, suffered a violation of his right to freedom of expression.

That is the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Olafsson v. Iceland (application no. 58493/13). Judges held, unanimously, that there had been a violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The applicant, Steingrímur Sævarr Ólafsson, was an editor of the web-based media site Pressan. He published articles insinuating that a political candidate had committed sexual abuse against children. The Supreme Court of Iceland held Ólafsson liable for defamation.

In particular, the court held that the liability for defamation had not been necessary in a democratic society, given the circumstances of the case. The subject of the allegations had been standing for political office and should have anticipated public scrutiny.

The articles about him had been published in good faith, in compliance with ordinary journalistic standards, and had contributed to a debate of public interest. Whilst the allegations had been defamatory, they were being made not by Ólafsson himself, but by others.

The political candidate had chosen not to sue the persons making the claims, and had thus perhaps prevented Ólafsson from establishing that he had acted in good faith and had ascertained the truth of the allegations. Ólafsson had also been ordered to pay compensation and costs.

In these circumstances, the Supreme Court had failed to strike a reasonable balance between the measures restricting Ólafsson’s freedom of expression, and the legitimate aim of protecting the reputation of others.

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