In 2004, a television journalist working for Hungarian State TV (Magyar Televizio Zrt.) published a book accusing his employer of censorship. He was fired for breaching the confidentiality clause of his employment contract, and sued the company in domestic courts but lost the case and all appeals.
The journalist, Gabor Matuz, brought the case to the ECHR claiming that his right to free expression had been violated. He argued that his positions as journalist and as chairman of the Trade Union of Public Service Broadcasters granted him “the right and obligation to inform the public about alleged censorship at the television company.” The Court found that the case was admissible, and that the Hungarian domestic courts had not considered Matuz’s rights under the Convention.
Firing Matuz constituted an “interference” with his right to free expression. Existing case law (see Wille v. Liechtenstein and Kudeshkina v. Russia) supported the argument that firing Matuz for publishing a book, without considering his professional abilities, implied a connection with his right to free expression. The freedom of expression protections under Article 10 of the Convention extend to the workplace, and it was established in Fuentes Bobo v. Spain that the State has a duty to protect freedom of expression “even in the sphere of relations between individuals.”
The Court then considered whether that interference violated Matuz’s rights under Article 10. The main question was whether firing Matuz was “necessary in a democratic society,” or in other words, whether it was “proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued” with “relevant and sufficient” justification. Because Matuz is a journalist, the Court found similarities with past cases Fuentes Bobo v. Spain and Wojtas-Kaleta v. Poland. Although the Court acknowledged that employees “owe to their employer a duty of loyalty, reserve, and discretion” (see Vogt v. Germany, Ahmed and Others v. the United Kingdom), this must be balanced against their right to free expression.
The Court found that Matuz’s concerns about State censorship were a matter of public interest. It also reiterated its view of the special role of journalists in society, who have “responsibilities to contribute and to encourage public debate.” Because of this, “the obligation of discretion and confidentiality constraints cannot be said to apply with equal force to journalists.”
In addition, because Matuz had previously published an article online with similar accusations, his claims of censorship were not new, and could not be claimed to damage the company’s reputation. And because Matuz had previously complained to the company president and board of directors about the censorship, without getting any response, the Court found that he had no “effective alternative channel.”
The Court concluded that firing Matuz was not “necessary in a democratic society,” and violated his rights under Article 10.
Judgment of the Court
Commentary from Dirk Voorhoof