Tech & Rights

Strasbourg Win for HCLU in Hyperlinking Case

A Hungarian court judged that the 444 news portal had damaged the reputation of a political party by hyperlinking to a third-party video. The European Court of Human Rights has now found that the Hungarian decision violated freedom of speech.

by Hungarian Civil Liberties Union

This was the first time that a Hungarian court has considered the relationship between hyperlinking and the freedom of speech. The publisher of the Hungarian portal was represented by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) and the London based Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI).

Hungarian news portal reports story from all perspectives

In September 2013 reported that a bus carrying a group of football fans to Romania stopped in front of the village school in Konyár, near the Hungarian-Romanian border. The pupils at the school mainly came from a Roma background. At the time the story was published, it was unclear exactly what had happened, and in particular, whether the football fans had threatened the children. The author of the article made efforts to give voice to all the involved parties. The article presented the viewpoint of the school principal as well as the heads of the police and of the local Roma minority self-government.

Jobbik sues for YouTube link in article

The head of the local Roma minority self-government, Jenő Gyöngyösi, summarised the event in a YouTube video, to which there was a link in the text. In this video Gyöngyösi said that the sympathisers of a Hungarian extreme right party had arrived in the village. The 444 article itself did not mention this and neither did it make any reference to the Jobbik party. However, Jobbik brought the case to court, saying that the online outlet had infringed the party's right to reputation with the link to the statement made by Gyöngyösi, suggesting that the incident near the school in Konyár was actually organised by Jobbik.

HCLU and 444 lose case in Hungarian courts

HCLU is of the opinion that, as long as the reporting is conscientious and respects the ethical rules of journalism, the press should not be held responsible for hyperlinking third-party content that it does not necessarily identify with. This is especially true when contrasting standpoints are presented in connection with a certain event, like in this present case. The Hungarian courts, however, did not share this view and 444 and HCLU lost the case in the first, second and third instances. Even the Constitutional Court failed to get a grip on it. In Hungarian judicial practice, when a newspaper quotes somebody it is as if the newspaper itself had made the quote, with the exception of reports on press conferences. This is called objective responsibility, which makes it extremely hard for the press to report freely on public events. The human rights organisations lodged an appeal at the European Court of Human Rights with the hope that it would rule that the Hungarian practice violates the freedom of speech.

European court says 444 acted in good faith in linking to video

In its judgement, ECHR stated that the Hungarian courts deliberately failed to examine whether the journalist and the outlet had acted in good faith and showed respect for journalistic ethics, which goes against ECHR case law. According to the judgement, the practice of objective responsibility in Hungary may negatively impact the free flow of information on the internet, and deter authors from using hyperlinks. The ECHR even developed a test to decide whether the author may be held responsible for embedding a hyperlink, and underlined that responsibility cannot be determined on an objective basis. All cases must be judged individually.

HCLU welcomes the decision

"We welcome the decision that obliges Hungarian courts, including the Constitutional Court, to develop a more nuanced approach with respect to hyperlinking on the internet. However, there are other aspects of the case besides its Hungarian relevance. Henceforward, journalists, bloggers and internet users embedding hyperlinks in their content should not have to be concerned about the legal repercussions as long as they act responsibly," said HCLU's lawyer Dalma Dojcsák.

The text of the judgement is available here.

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