Finally, the long awaited European Court on Human Rights (ECtHR) decision on Animal Defenders International v. United Kingdom has been released.
The importance of the judgment cannot be underestimated as it is now permissible for a country within the convention system to prevent political advertising from lobby groups. The case was taken on the basis of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantees freedom of expression in line with certain restrictions.
The original Animal Defenders International case started when the lobby group sought to place a counter point advertisement to highlight the use of primates in entertainment. They wished to broadcast this ad but they were refused permission.
This is somewhat like the Irish case of Murphy v. Independent Radio and Television Commission which later went on to become Murphy v. Ireland in the ECtHR. Here, the defendant wished to place an ad in Dublin’s 98fm around lent for listeners to attend a meeting to talk about god. Those who get the DART regularly will see these ads around the train carriages. In this case the court applied a margin of appreciation to Ireland and did not find that Ireland violated the Article 10 protection for freedom of expression. It restated the Irish judgment that religion and the Irish make a bad combination so best to keep them off the airwaves. The judgment was rightly criticized as deferring too much to the state instead of promoting full and free debate of matters of public interest.
The area of concern for the ADI case is that of political advertising. Political Advertising in Ireland is a highly regulated area. Kevin Rafter complied an excellent report on this area for the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland detailing the Irish law in comparison to other jurisdictions. Yes, there is a logical fear that allowing a US style system of political advertising may lead to a free for all when it comes to elections (plus very annoying ad breaks full of candidates) but it does strike at the heart of freedom of expression. If some are allowed to place ads on television, for example, promoting their environmental credentials then why can another group criticise them in the same forum?
In the judgment today, the ECtHR has now set up a worrying line of precedent where full and free debate on national media, particularly the press is acceptable. However, the dissenting judgments are illuminating in their reasoning that such restrictions do interfere with freedom of expression. It also may demonstrate a trend that where political speech is in question, the ECtHR finds too readily in favour of the actions of the State involved.