I wrote at the end of last year about a case at the European Court of Human Rights concerning one of my correspondents, Karl Pfeifer. Mr Pfeifer is a longstanding anti-racist campaigner and journalist in Austria. He writes regularly in English for the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight about the European far Right, and he is Curator of the Documentation Centre of the Austrian Resistance. Mr Pfeifer appealed to the ECHR after the Austrian court system had failed to protect his reputation from libellous accusations made by an extremist newspaper Zur Zeit. This was how I summarised the case:
"In 1995, Mr Pfeifer published an article accurately recounting and aptly commenting on the views of a Nazi apologist, one Dr Werner Pfeifenberger. Pfeifenberger sued Mr Pfeifer for defamation and lost. In 2000 the Vienna Public Prosecutor indicted Pfeifenberger under the law forbidding Nazi activities, the National Socialism Prohibition Act. Pfeifenberger committed suicide shortly before his trial was due. A month later, a far-right weekly, Zur Zeit, accused Mr Pfeifer of having driven the "Catholic" Pfeifenberger to his death. Mr Pfeifer sued. A Viennese court ruled in his favour, but Zur Zeit appealed and won its case. Mr Pfeifer then appealed to the European Court against the Austrian courts and government. The complaint was accepted in December 2005 and the judgement was issued on Thursday this week [15 November 2007]. In the case of Pfeifer v. Austria, Mr Pfeifer won."
The case has important legal implications in which I'm interested but that I'm not competent to discuss. What I will say is that, even if you discount the fact (for the rule of law is disinterested) that Mr Pfeifer is a good man whereas his opponents are racist bigots, it is welcome news that he won, for reasons I stated in my post.
Mr Pfeifer has now written to let me know that on 15 February this ECHR judgement, Pfeifer v. Austria, became final. He is applying to the Austrian High Court to restart proceedings against Zur Zeit and Andreas Mölzer MEP of the Austrian Freedom Party. (I won't give a link, but Mölzer's website - in German only - is headed by a photograph of him in friendly conference with Jean-Marie Le Pen.) I congratulate Mr Pfeifer warmly on - to use a phrase that ought to be rescued and deployed non-ironically - his courage, strength and indefatigability.
UPDATE: There is a useful summary in Press Gazette, which I missed when it was published in November, both of the legal judgement and of its potential impact on UK libel law. The Gazette states:
"The Court reiterated that statements which shocked or offended the public or a particular person were indeed protected by the right to freedom of expression under Article 10 [of the European Convention on Human Rights].
"But the statement here at issue went beyond that, claiming that Pfeifer had caused the professor's death by ultimately driving him to commit suicide. No proof had been offered for the alleged causal link between the applicant's article and the professor's death. By writing that, the chief editor's letter overstepped acceptable limits, because it in fact accused Pfeifer of acts tantamount to criminal behaviour.
"The Court was therefore not convinced that the reasons advanced by the domestic courts for protecting freedom of expression outweighed the right of the applicant to have his reputation safeguarded. There had accordingly been a violation of Article 8 [concerning protection of reputation]."
I'm a near-absolutist on free speech, and strongly defend the right to free expression of racists, antisemites and Holocaust deniers. But the principle behind this Court judgement is surely right.