ECtHR: Romanian tennis star fails in Article 8 case over tax story

1 December 2021

A former tennis player who claimed a newspaper had defamed him in a story that mentioned his tax affairs has failed in his Article 8 appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

The court found that as the newspaper article had been a mixture of value judgment and supported factual statements, it had had no discernible negative effect on the applicant’s life, and as it had not been written in bad faith, that the domestic courts’ finding in favour of the journalist and the publication had been in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The applicant, Ioan Țiriac, is a Romanian national who was born in 1939 and lives in Monte Carlo (Monaco). He is a former tennis player and president of the Romanian Olympic Committee and is thought to be one of the richest people in Romania.

In 2010 a journalist in the national newspaper Financiarul published an article entitled “Fifteen multimillionaires and their debts of a quarter of a billion lei to the State – The recipe for business success is guaranteed when the businesses are funded by public funds or taxes are not paid”. The article concerned the debt owned to the State by the 15 wealthiest people in Romania and included Mr Tirac’s photo. According to the article, only two people listed owed more than Mr Tiriac.

The article stated that his €900 million fortune was “not sufficient to cover the holes [left] in the State [budget] by his partnership … in the company [M.E.C.B.] S.R.L., which owes 5,586,833 lei to the State … Another debt of the companies in which Ioan Ţiriac is involved is of 312,637 lei through [U.C.S.R.] S.A. The millionaire has [additional] debts also through the company [P.A.M.] S.A.”, and suggested that the tax office was “counting the debts of the closed companies [while] the millionaires [were] counting the money in their personal offshore accounts”. It added that if it were not “enough that they no longer [paid] their debts to the State, a large majority of the businessmen [were] directly connected to public procurement deals …”

Mr Țiriac brought proceedings against the journalist and against the holding company of the newspaper. He asserted that the article had been defamatory in respect of him and the companies he was involved, and claimed €130,000 in respect of non-pecuniary damage because the article had breached his rights to personal image, honour and dignity. He argued, furthermore, that the journalist had failed to provide clear and accurate information to the reader. He pointed to numerous alleged falsehoods in the article, refuting many of the claims of financial chicanery on his part.

The case was dismissed by the domestic courts.

Relying on Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life), the applicant complained to the ECtHR of the domestic courts’ assessment of the facts, of their denial to him of the possibility of obtaining compensation, and of their failure to protect his rights.

As the article concerned the business activities and practices of some of the wealthiest Romanians and their effect on the system of public tax collection, it is satisfied that it was of public interest. The ECtHR agreed with the domestic courts that the article had not touched on the applicant’s private life, but rather his professional activities, and had not been exclusively about him. The courts had not examined his “prior conduct”, and as a result that did form part of the court’s assessment.

The court noted the national courts’ findings that the article had not been offensive and that the content had been a combination of value judgments and statements of fact which, given the overall content and message of the article, had been factually supported. The court adjudged that there had not been bad faith on the part of the reporter or any discernible repercussions for the applicant’s life.

In the light of the above the court considered that the national courts had balanced the competing rights at stake in conformity with the criteria laid down in the court’s case-law. There had been no violation of Article 8 of the Convention.

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