LITHUANIA: ECHR rulews in favour of NGO’s case on free expression

(CIVICUS Monitor) On 30th January 2018, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the Lithuanian government had unreasonably restricted freedom of expression. In its judgement, the ECHR decided that a fine imposed by the state on a private company had violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights which protects freedom of expression.

The case began in 2012, when the government fined Sekmadienis Ltd 2,000 litas (€579) for using religious symbols in a disrespectful and inappropriate manner that could be deemed offensive. The company appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court of Lithuania, which upheld the fine.

Human Rights Monitoring Institute in Lithuania brought the case before the ECHR, claiming that the fine violated constitutional protections of the right to freedom of expression. The state responded that the sanction was an attempt to protect religious followers’ sentiments. The Court ruling stated that by fining the company for the advertisements,

“the domestic authorities failed to strike a fair balance between, on the one hand, the protection of public morals and the rights of religious people, and, on the other hand, the applicant company’s right to freedom of expression..the authorities gave absolute primacy to protecting the feelings of religious people, without adequately taking into account the applicant company’s right to freedom of expression”.

Commenting on the verdict, Karolis Liutkevičius, the chief legal officer of Human Rights Monitoring Institute told the CIVICUS Monitor:

“A salient feature of this case is that national authorities never really provided any substantiation in their decisions as to why they considered the advertisements derogatory towards the religious. The mere fact that religious imagery and persons were used was enough to have the ads considered “in violation of public morals”. Essentially, national authorities forced religious morals on the whole of Lithuanian society, and unduly restricted the freedom of expression, both commercial and artistic. We are very glad to have this decision from the European Court of Human Rights, showing that this is not acceptable in a democratic society.”

Wider freedom of expression issues

As previously reported, there are a number of issues that have arisen on freedom of expression in Lithuanian law. For example, certain instances of “hate speech” are punishable by fines or even imprisonment. Recently, the court punished commentator Kęstutis Pauliukonis after he made public posts deemed humiliating and degrading to Jewish people. The commentator later told police that he regretted his actions. A court sentenced him to six months of house arrest.

Harmful speech directed towards the LGBTI community continues to be a problem in Lithuania. Due to the efforts of local LGBTI advocacy groups, such as the National LGBT Rights Organisation (LGL), the authorities are investigating cases which could constitute hate speech online. In one such case, LGL forced the Kaunus District Prosecutor’s Office to resume a pre-trial investigation into online comments which the LGL claimed violated Article 170 of Lithuania’s Criminal Code. Article 170 criminalises any public instigation of violence against a minority. At the time of writing, the investigation into the case was ongoing. In another ongoing case – Beizaras and Levickas v Lithuania –  the European Court of Human Rights has informed the Lithuanian government that it will investigate a complaint by a gay couple that the state is taking action or considering seriously the threats posed by harmful speech against LGBTI individuals online.

Original article by CIVICUS Monitor