Reputation vs public interest

In case of dispute, the status of persons involved is important in assessing the permissible borders of criticism. It is important to assess the level of protection the person discussed is entitled to, the public interest in the issues raised and the role of the person releasing the information or statements.

Purpose of publication

Certain criticism could be important for a report on issues of public interest. Therefore, journalists and media have certain freedom to decide how they will express their criticism based on the information available to them. Similarly, certain criticism could also be expressed by a private individual participating in a public debate on issues important to society.

However, even in cases where the discussion relates to a subject of public interest, the publisher must make sure that the criticism expressed is based on some credible facts and is not excessive in relation to them.

example If a newspaper reports on political issues, like the functioning of state institutions and the electoral process, it is permissible to be more critical towards the persons responsible for these processes.

Public figures

Public figures, such as politicians or celebrities, should be ready to accept wider and harsher criticism than private individuals, especially when they are fulfilling their functions in society.

Private life

If the disputed statements relate to the private life of public figures, the freedom of expression and permissible criticism is narrower. In those cases, you will have to show a real public interest in the issues raised or in the information revealed. Therefore, commercial interests or entertainment for a certain readership, based on sensations or gossip, will most likely be considered not to be of legitimate public interest. Read more about protection of private life.

example Condemning a minister for having a vacation at a luxurious tourist destination while the state administration was facing austerity measures would be justified in the public interest.

Private individuals

The reputation and dignity of individuals who do not fulfil a public function is protected more strictly than that of public figures. This is because there is generally much less public interest connected to their professional functions or status in society which would justify such criticism.

Limitations

Public interest about a certain person does not mean that their reputation is not protected. It means that such criticism must be evaluated taking into account the role they have chosen to undertake in society, the public interest in that role or the issues or behaviour being criticised. In case of a dispute, the authors and publishers of critical statements must be able to justify:

  • how and why the criticism relates to an issue of public interest
  • that claims about facts are indeed true and the opinions expressed have sufficient factual basis to substantiate them

Human Rights Guide

A European platform for human rights education