16 November 2021
by Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of the Golos movement for the defence of voters’ rights and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Award
Golos has been successful at the European Court of Human Rights: the court recognized that the state violated the right to freedom of expression. On 16 November the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) upheld the application of the Golos organisation.
The basis of the case
In 2011, during the election campaign for the State Duma of Russia, the state launched a campaign to put pressure on the Golos organisation. One of its concerns was its opposition to the “Map of Violations”. There were hacking attacks, attempts to discredit the project in the federal media and a fine for publishing citizens’ reports of violations in the elections. The chair of the Central Electoral Commission of Russia, Vladimir Churov, and a group of deputies appealed to the Prosecutor General’s Office with a demand to bring Golos to justice. The prosecutor’s office appealed to the court, where it claimed that the work of the “Map of Violations” and the publication of information on Golos’ website allegedly fell under the ban on the publication of the results of public opinion polls, forecasts of election results and other analyses related to the election campaign within five days prior to election day. On 2 December 2011 a judge found Golos guilty and fined the organisation 30,000 roubles.
Decision of the ECtHR
In its ruling in the case, the ECtHR concluded that the prosecution of the Golos organisation was in violation of Article 10 (Freedom of Expression) of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms:
Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.
The court pointed out that the information on the “Map of Violations” could not be considered as publication of a public opinion poll and, therefore, did not violate Russian electoral legislation.
The ECtHR stated in its judgment that the excessive extension of electoral legislation on the ‘period of silence’ to all materials relating to the current elections, as interpreted and applied by the Russian courts and confirmed by the authorities, in this case disproportionately impeded the exercise of freedom of dissemination of information and opinions on the holding of free and fair elections.
The Court considers that election observers should be able to draw public attention to alleged violations of electoral laws and procedures as they arise, otherwise such commentaries would lose much of their value to the general public. The vague nature of the accusation prevented Golos from fulfilling its function as a public watchdog.
This decision means that the established prohibitions cannot apply to whistleblowers’ statements about violations as this would qualify as unjustified interference by the state in the freedom of expression.
Golos has thereby won a victory at the ECtHR. A number of other applications we have made to the Court still await judgment.
Translated by Graham Jones