Another judge gets hefty damages in media suit

ANOTHER whopping sum awarded in newspaper libel damages to a Slovak judge has drawn claims of intimidation from the local media community, and promises to seek international recourse.

ANOTHER whopping sum awarded in newspaper libel damages to a Slovak judge has drawn claims of intimidation from the local media community, and promises to seek international recourse.

The Bratislava regional court has ruled that Perex, the publisher of one of Slovakia's most popular broadsheet dailies, Pravda, must pay Judge Štefan Harabin Sk3 million (€80,000) in damages for several articles, opinion pieces, and cartoons it published in 2002.

Harabin, the former chief justice of Slovakia's Supreme Court, said he found the articles offensive, biased and factually wrong, and originally sought Sk10 million (€260,000).

The newspaper claimed that while Harabin was chief justice, he approved inappropriately high bonuses for some judges. Pravda also criticized Harabin for allegedly failing to introduce an electronic system for assigning court cases to judges, and claimed that instead he had personally decided who would deal with which case, a system that is widely seen as open to manipulation.

In a previous decision, the Bratislava V district court had also required the daily to apologize to the former chief justice.

The verdict has caused a major stir in the Slovak media community, which saw it as an attack on freedom of speech in the country.

On February 14, Pravda published a series of apologies on pages 2, 8, 10, and 12 in connection with the Harabin articles, cartoons, and opinion pieces.

According to Petr Šabata, Pravda's editor-in-chief, his newspaper "fully respects the verdict but considers it to be completely inappropriate."

"Because no appeal is possible against this decision, we will use all extraordinary means at our disposal, such as submitting a complaint to the Constitutional Court of Slovakia, and to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg alleging a violation of the European Agreement on the Protection of Human Rights and Basic Freedoms," Šabata wrote in a statement published next to the apologies.

The newspaper also plans to turn to the World Association of Publishers as well as the European Commission, in an effort to demonstrate that "Slovak judicial practice in some cases clearly goes against the freedom of speech".

Pravda was supported by other media organizations such as the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists (SSN) and the SME daily, its biggest competitor among broadsheet dailies.

Back in 2004, SME's publisher was also told to pay compensation of Sk4 million (€110,000) to Supreme Court judge Harald Stiffel. Stiffel had sued SME over stories it ran in 2002 about a communist trial Stiffel had adjudicated in 1981 with a priest who was rehabilitated after the fall of the regime.

The recent decision in the Harabin case also provoked outrage from the authors of the "Petition for Purging the Judiciary", which was launched last year.

One member of the petition committee, Juraj Petrovič, said that "freedom of speech is the basis of any democratic society, and is one of the most important tools of public control over public officials."

According to the petitioners, Slovakia needs a judicial system that "will not be burdened by the past, that will be able to evaluate the performance of its members objectively and without false collegiality, and that will be able to differentiate clearly between infractions against human rights and respect for the law".

"Solidarity and false collegiality among judges is visible, and aims to remove judges from public control," said Petrovič in a statement for the TASR news agency.

The SSN labelled the Harabin verdict "a dangerous legal precedent that intends to intimidate [the media]", according to SSN Chairperson Zuzana Krútka.

Krútka noted that the verdict states that, unlike in the case of politicians, "judicial branch representatives do not have to accept a lower threshold of criticism and an impact on their personal rights, quite the opposite..."

The media union chair called this interpretation "astounding".

Another disturbing aspect of the Harabin case, Krútka said, was that "in considering the cartoons, the court only looked at the texts [accompanying them], even though cartoons are a genre that works with a high degree of exaggeration, which, of course, readers understand.

"Third, the steps of Mr Harabin [in this case] are also astounding. He did not ask [the newspaper] for redress, which he is entitled to under the Press Law, nor he did turn to the Slovak Press Council [an independent body ruling on media issues such as ethics]. Instead, he collected several pieces published over six months and turned to the courts, asking not only for an apology, but also for considerable financial compensation," Krútka told The Slovak Spectator.

"The SSN will inform the International Federation of Journalists and the European Federation of Journalists of this case."



Judge Štefan Harabin explains his case for The Slovak Spectator

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): The Pravda daily intends to turn to the Constitutional Court as well as other, international institutions, because it considers the verdict inappropriately harsh and directed "against the freedom of speech". Can you comment?

Štefan Harabin (ŠH): The valid verdict concerning the apology and the non-property damages awarded sends a clear signal to the media that it is not permissible to publish lies and untruths without legal consequences, and [that the media cannot] protect themselves with [reference to] the constitutional right of free speech. In the given case there were a total of 11 untrue allegations, and 7 evaluations that were not supported by fact, for a total of 18 unauthorized interferences over three quarters of a year, which is an extremely high number and has no parallel in cases adjudicated by the Slovak courts or the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR). The Strasbourg judicature is tending to afford a lower level of protection for public officials and politicians, but this does not apply to judges.

The texts in question, in a defamatory way, degraded not a politician but a judge. The ECHR judicature, which in the past has given rather broad freedoms to the press under the influence of US legal doctrines, has balanced this by shifting towards a higher level of protection for personal rights, which is clearly documented in the verdict from June 24, 2004, complaint number 59320/00, in the case of Caroline von Hannover from Germany.

TSS: Originally you asked for Sk10 million (€260,000) in compensation from Perex [Pravda's publisher]. How did you arrive at such a sum? Pravda says that even the Sk3 million (€80,000) which the court awarded can cause it economic problems.

ŠH: Quite the contrary, given the gravity of these unauthorized interferences and the consequences they had, the financial satisfaction awarded in the given matter is low. The sum of non-property damages awarded should serve not only to compensate for the non-property damages created, but also to prevent extravagance on the part of a certain part of the media, in other words to have a preventive effect in scaring off potential offenders whose goal is to achieve a commercial increase in their circulation and to satisfy the craving for sensation, as demanded by the tastes of some politicians and a part of the public. Perex, the publisher of Pravda, has for a long time been unjustly increasing its profits and getting rich by defaming me as the head of the Supreme Court. Behind this discreditation stood a daily with a large readership, and thus also [a large] profit, and the court received a legal opportunity to draw from it.

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