Editors must edit comments, says ECHR

Editors of large, commercial news sites have a duty to prevent readers from posting unlawful comments, according to a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights (Delfi v. Estonia). Otherwise they may be liable for damages in national courts.

“It’s a highly unfortunate ruling for freedom of expression and a victory for the offence culture if proponents can now go hunting in the comments of all the world’s commercial web sites and hope to have the relevant medium convicted,” wrote Jacob Mchangama, Director of the Danish think-tank Justitia, in a newspaper blog.

In practice, the ruling may mean that editors have to stop readers from making anonymous comments, and have to edit comments before they are published. Rulings from the ECHR are nor always consistent, so citizens may have to wait for future rulings before knowing its full significance. Critics fear that this may be the beginning of a re-definition of article 10 (freedom of expression) in the European Convention on Human Rights, which has always been balanced against article 8 (the right to respect for private and family life). Until now, freedom of speech has had priority over other articles in the Convention as soon as professional media were involved.

This ruling concerns commercial portals and does not include other media: “The Delfi case did not concern other fora on the Internet where third-party comments could be disseminated, for example an Internet discussion forum, a bulletin board or a social media platform,” the judges state. In practice, it may be problematic to distinguish between commercial and merely social media sites. In the almost ten years since the event took place in Estonia, there has developed a cross-over between different media, with extended sharing of material across sites.

The Norwegian Code of Ethics foresaw this problem in 2005, when the following article was introduced:

2.1. The legally responsible editor carries personal and full responsibility for the material contained in the publication, no matter the form. (http://presse.no/pfu/etiske-regler/vaer-varsom-plakaten/vvpl-engelsk/ )

London School of Economics blog:
The Delfi vs. Estonia judgement explained