Andrej Babiš must apologise to journalist Pavla Holcová

by investigace.cz editorial team

The Regional Court in Prague has ruled that Andrej Babiš must apologize to investigative journalist and investigace.cz editor-in-chief Pavla Holcová for false claims he published about her on Facebook. This is a landmark ruling that could have implications for politicians and journalists across the European Union. There is now case law that defines the responsibility of politicians for disparaging posts they write and publish on social networks—and for the public debates that follow.

This article was originally published in Czech on investigace.cz

Andrej Babiš has been ordered by the court to publish an apology on his Facebook page within three days of the judgment coming into force. The apology is to read: “I apologize to Mrs. Pavla Holcová for the unjustified interference with her personal rights caused by the publication of a false post under the headline ‘It happened by Whatsapp’ on the website www.facebook.com/AndrejBabis on 2 April 2022. Andrej Babiš.” The Regional Court ordered the apology to be published for seven consecutive calendar days. The full text of the judgment can be found here.

The Regional Court in Prague has finally ruled that Andrej Babiš must apologize to investigative journalist and editor-in-chief of investigace.cz, Pavla Holcova. Source: investigace.cz

In April 2022, the former prime minister, Andrej Babiš, published a collage on his Facebook page with a photo of Pavla Holcova and a text that read simply, “It came by Whatsapp.” The WhatsApp message read, “If Babiš dares to run for president, it has already been agreed with Mr Soros that a week before the elections we will again put some false dirt on him. It worked last time. Mr. Soros was very happy!”

The Facebook post was a response to the Pandora Papers of October 2021, in which investigace.cz reported conclusively that Andrej Babiš had purchased real estate in France through a chain of offshore companies and never disclosed these assets, as he, a politician, was required by law to do. Babiš subsequently claimed in his regular video blog that Pavla Holcová made him lose the October 2021 elections. However, Babiš never disputed the text itself, which described the entire affair, in which he invested almost CZK 400,000,000 of unknown origin through companies in the British Virgin Islands, Washington and Monaco. Today, he is under investigation by the French prosecutor’s office for this real estate purchase.

The court of first instance (the court of the original jurisdiction) had already ordered the text to be deleted because “the criticism of the applicant certainly could not have provoked a serious discussion, was in retaliation for the Pandora Papers case and was clearly disseminated with the intention of harming the applicant.” The Court of Appeals added that Babiš had a duty to apologize.

Although Andrej Babiš and his marketing team did not create the post, but rather shared it, the court took into account that “the defendant is a former Prime Minister, a candidate for the office of President of the Republic, the chairman of a major political party, a Member of Parliament of the Czech Republic, the owner of a number of major national media outlets, and therefore a public figure with a large influence on public opinion, and a significantly larger number of followers. The defendant could and should have been aware that his contribution would lead to hateful reactions against the applicant, yet he did not moderate the debate in any way, did not explain that, as he began to claim only in these proceedings, it was allegedly just a joke and an exaggeration.”

The court of first instance also commented on the fact that Andrej Babiš should have moderated the hateful comments under his post about Pavla Holcova: “In view of the comments under the post, the defendant should have had at least a doubt that the post was perceived by the reader as true and should have made the necessary efforts to explain his actions, which he did not do, despite being invited by the applicant to voluntarily remove it.”

“I am convinced that as journalists upholding ethical standards, we should stand up to politicians who all too often put targets on our backs and encourage their fans to bully us,” Pavla Holcová commented on the verdict.

“The court confirmed that the defendant was not engaged in a serious public debate, but rather in a malicious attack,” added the journalist’s lawyer, Tomáš Němeček.The issue of responsibility for hateful debates under politicians’ social media posts was also addressed by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights earlier this year. On May 5, 2023, in Sánchez v. France, it found that the conviction of a politician for failing to promptly delete unlawful comments published by third parties on the public wall of his Facebook account did not breach his Article 10 rights, i.e. it recognized that politicians can be held criminally responsible for their social media posts—and for the hateful reactions they provoke.

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