Court backs France in free expression dispute over torture photos – European Convention of Human Rights

A French magazine, ordered to black out images of a captive and tortured man, has failed to persuade judges that the decision breached European human rights law.

In its 25 February judgment in the case of Société de Conception de Presse et d’Édition v. France (application no. 4683/11), the European Convention on Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been:

no violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The applicant, Société de Conception de Presse et d’Édition, is a company incorporated under French law with its registered office in Noisy-Le-Grand (France).

In January 2006, I.H., aged 23, was held captive and tortured for 24 days. He died of his injuries. While the young man was being held, a photograph of him wearing shackles and showing visible signs of ill-treatment was sent to his family together with a ransom demand.

During the trial of the individuals suspected of involvement in the case, the magazine Choc, published by the applicant company, printed the photograph on the front cover of issue no. 120 and in four places inside the magazine, accompanied by other photographs and by an article several pages long.

Following publication of the photograph, I.H.’s mother and sister brought urgent proceedings against the publishing company for breach of privacy. On 20 May 2009 the Vice-President of the Paris tribunal de grande instance ordered the applicant company to withdraw the issue of the magazine from all sales outlets, on pain of a daily fine, and to pay 20,000 euros (EUR) to I.H.’s mother and EUR 10,000 to each of his sisters in compensation.

The Paris Court of Appeal upheld the main points of that judgment, but replaced the order to withdraw the issue from sale by an order requiring the photograph in question to be blacked out in all the magazines put on sale, on pain of a daily fine.

The European court found in particular that the publication of the photograph, which had not been intended for public viewing, constituted serious interference with the private life of I.H.’s relatives.

The court found that the restriction on freedom of expression had been proportionate, as the domestic courts had merely ordered that the photograph in question be blacked out, without censoring the article or ordering its withdrawal.

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