Estonian news outlet Delfi loses comments debate in European court

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The European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday announced a long-awaited Grand Chamber judgment in the comments debate between Delfi and the Estonian state, which found that the internet news portal was liable for the offensive comments posted by its readers.

The court saga goes back to 2006 when the ferry businessman Vjatseslav Leedo took umbrage at some comments posted on the website in the wake of a story about how Leedo's ferry company destroyed a planned ice road route. Delfi turned to the Human Rights Court after the Estonian Supreme Court  in June 2009 upheld a lower court's ruling which ordered the news outlet to pay the businessman 320 euros against non-material damage caused through a violation of his individual rights. The court found that the portal operator was obliged to prevent the publication of comments with clearly unlawful content and that in the case such comments were published the portal operator was obliged to remove them as soon as possible.

The Grand Chamber found that the Estonian courts' finding of liability against Delfi had been a justified and proportionate restriction on the portal's freedom of expression, in particular, because the comments in question had been extreme and had been posted in reaction to an article published by Delfi on its professionally managed news portal run on a commercial basis; the steps taken by Delfi to remove the offensive comments without delay after their publication had been insufficient; and the 320 euro fine had by no means been excessive for Delfi, the European Court of Human Rights said in a press release.

The editor in chief of Delfi and the daily Eesti Paevaleht, Urmo Soonvald, said freedom of speech in whole Europe has received a blow. «I believe that the makers of this decision understand its historic weight. I'm pleased that Delfi has developed and improved its comments section all the time regardless of rulings ripening in European court corridors,» he added.