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PARLIAMENT PROTECTS CITIZENS FROM 'RACKETEERING METHODS,' OFFICIALS SAY

Another general pardon

THE RULING coalition has joined forces with part of the opposition to offer a "general pardon" for people who were late in paying their radio licence fees to the public Slovak Radio, but still paid them by February 20, 2006. The pardon will free people from having to pay penalties on arrears, which in many cases come to several hundreds of thousands of Slovak crowns.

THE RULING coalition has joined forces with part of the opposition to offer a "general pardon" for people who were late in paying their radio licence fees to the public Slovak Radio, but still paid them by February 20, 2006. The pardon will free people from having to pay penalties on arrears, which in many cases come to several hundreds of thousands of Slovak crowns.

Earlier this month, tens of thousands of Slovaks received notification from law firm Lawyer Partners, giving them a choice between paying Sk1,000 to settle out-of-court and paying thousands of Slovak crowns in interest on overdue payments. Lawyer Partners said it was collecting the interest based on a 2005 contract with the public Slovak Radio on due licence fee bills. However, Slovak Radio backed out of the contract in 2006 and has challenged the arrangement in court.

However, parliament has now managed to produce a "general pardon" through an amendment to the completely unrelated Occupational Safety Law, arguing that such a non-standard situation called for a non-standard solution.

"I am aware that this is not the best way of going about things legislatively, but on the other hand, such an unusual situation calls for an uncommon solution," the revision's author, Ján Podmanický of the ruling Smer party, told the Sme daily.

Last year, parliament adopted a general pardon proposed by the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union's (SDKÚ) Tomáš Galbavý, but Lawyer Partners claimed that the pardon only applied to people who still had unpaid licence fees between February 21 and April 22, 2006.

The opposition SDKÚ voted in support of the Justice Ministry's draft. However, another opposition party, the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), refused to support the law, saying that the only way to really deal with the situation was to wait for a decision from the court on the cancellation of Slovak Radio's contract with Lawyer Partners.

The public broadcaster suffers from an old contract.
photo: Jana Liptáková

Former justice minister Daniel Lipšic of the KDH said he thought last year's general pardon was sufficient. It is essential that the contract that transferred the claims from Slovak Radio to the law firm be annulled, Lipšic told The Slovak Spectator. He called the new pardon a "completely populist move that in no way helps those who received letters from Lawyer Partners. If the first pardon did not help, why should a second or a third?"

Lipšic explained to The Slovak Spectator how the situation ended up as it has.

"Slovak Radio never had the right to transfer the claims," said Lipšic. "Slovak Radio, in my opinion, transferred the claims to them illegally. [We also have this situation] because the law adopted during the Vladimír Mečiar administration in 1995 made such high delayed-payment interest rates possible, at Sk5,000 a month."

The Justice Ministry said that license fees are the Culture Ministry's problem and that the police now have to investigate the case to ascertain whether any laws were broken by those involved in the case.

"It is up to the ministry to penalise people who are responsible for the current situation," Jana Révayová of the Justice Ministry's press department told The Slovak Spectator. "The Justice Ministry has gotten involved in the issue at the prompting of the Culture Ministry and the people. In just two weeks, we have managed to prepare a general pardon that has been approved by parliament."

The ministry also disagrees with Lipšic and the KDH's statements that Lawyer Partners might turn to the European courts and sue Slovakia.

"He [Lipšic] obviously has mixed up the penal code with the civil code, in which retroactivity is possible under certain conditions," said Révayová. "Any citizen can turn to the European courts after exhausting all legal options at home, which also means the citizens who failed to pay their Sk140 fee and now are being asked to pay several hundreds of thousands of crowns. The number of similar complaints was really high and the ministry wanted to deal with the situation promptly."

However, Lipšic reminded The Slovak Spectator that it was the Mečiar government that established the Sk5,000 a month fees for late payments.

"The current minister is a nominee of Mečiar's party," said Lipšic. "I think [Justice Minister] Harabín should be as quiet he possibly can in this case. It was his party that created the problem. Former director of Slovak Radio Jaroslav Rezník was an HZDS nominee and Mr Rezník caused the problem."

The current director of Slovak Radio, Miloslava Zemková, told the SITA newswire on June 27 that Lawyer Partners' current racketeering activities can only be effectively stopped by a court. The radio transferred unpaid fees worth Sk91 million, which involved 265,000 people.

Lawyer Partners offered a deal on June 27 to Slovak Radio. The law firm said it would transfer all the claims back to the radio and ask only that the radio cover the expenses linked to the collection of unpaid fees, SITA reported.

However, Slovak Radio rejected Lawyer Partners' offer and also filed a complaint against the former authorised representative of Slovak Radio, Hilda G., in connection with a contract that the radio reportedly signed with the firm in January 2006.

"Probably, a crime of violating duties linked to the administration of the property of a third party, along with other crimes, could have been committed," Zemková told SITA.

According to SITA, Hilda G. is currently the general director of the Culture Ministry's economic department but the ministry has refused to comment on the complaint.

Jaroslav Rezník, who is now the general director of the TASR public newswire, explained that Lawyer Partners was selected in a tender involving three firms as their offer was the most advantageous, Sme wrote.

"The problem started when Slovak Radio signed the agreement with the firm, even though its practices were already known in the Czech Republic, and the ruling coalition there had to deal with them in the same way. We really think that a firm with such a reputation should have a problem getting new clients, not to mention getting a contract with a public institution," KDH spokesman Martin Krajčovič told The Slovak Spectator.

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