New twist in Trend lawsuit

THE HEAD of the Bartolomei Finance company, which launched the suit that led the District Court in Bratislava to freeze Trend magazine's accounts, is now in legal trouble, the Czech ČTK newswire wrote on November 1.

Andrei Bartolomei has been charged with embezzlement. Police allege that in the 1990s, Bartolomei embezzled more than Sk3 million (€90,000) from the Slovenská Životná Poisťovňa (SŽP) insurance company, according to Pavol Adamčiak, a spokesman for the District Court in Bratislava, where the trial will be held. At the time, Bartolomei was the president of the insurer's board of directors.

According to the charges, Bartolomei is suspected of bilking the SŽP out of more than Sk3 million by using a cheque with a forged signature, Adamčiak told ČTK.

SŽP was later renamed Kontinuita Insurance, and it is currently a member of the Austrian Vienna Insurance Group.

The District Prosecutor's Office filed a suit about Bartolomei in late July. In a criminal order proceeding, the District Court ruled out a suspended sentence of two years for the accused. But as Bartolomei did not agree with the order, the case will move to a full trial on November 5, Adamčiak said.

If he is found guilty, he could get a sentence of two to eight years.

Bartolomei denied all the accusations.

"It is a matter that I really find absurd, and I believe I will be acquitted, as there was no embezzlement at all," Bartolomei told ČTK.

He also stressed that the embezzlement case does not relate in any way to his current company's dispute with Trend.

The Bratislava District Court has already frozen the accounts of the Holding publishing house, which runs the Trend economic weekly.

Bartolomei Finance filed a Sk140-million lawsuit against the publisher in compensation for lost profits, Slovak media wrote.

The publishing house has appealed.

The court issued the preliminary injunction on September 21. It banned the publishing house from handling the money on the company's accounts - up to Sk144.4 million - and other assets.

The dispute started on January 22, 2004, when the weekly published an article warning about investing in Bartolomei Finance, arguing that the company failed to get permission to act further as a securities dealer.

The story also reported alleged doubts about the company's assets and about it avoiding financial supervision.

Bartolomei Finance took the case to the court and won. The weekly was forced to apologise and pay it one crown.

Trend says it has accepted that verdict, but it considers the analysis the court used to issue its preliminary injunction to be speculative and baseless.

Public turning against media?

The chair of the opposition Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) and former prime minister Mikuláš Dzurinda said freezing Trend's accounts sets a very dangerous precedent, and blamed the Robert Fico government for the development.

SDKÚ vice-chair Ivan Mikloš echoed those concerns.

"It is quite evident that this atmosphere formed by the government through constant attacks on the media can help and support such decisions," he told the public Slovak Radio.

The prime minister's spokesperson, Silvia Glendová, refuted their comments.

"The desperate opposition politicians have missed the point - as usual - that the media in Slovakia write and broadcast whatever they want, taking advantage of the fact that the system of legal protection against publishing untrue information is very ineffective," she said. "If we were the media, we would be very careful and hesitate about whether we wanted such untrustworthy supporters, as Mr. Mikloš and Mr. Dzurinda are."

Political analyst Miroslav Kusý agrees that Fico's attacks on the media can influence judges' decisions.

"Of course it has an impact on forming the public opinion," he said. "If they keep provoking (media antagonism), it can influence everyone, whether people want it to or not."

He added that the prime minister's attacks on the media have already influenced public opinion, and especially his followers.

"Luckily, we are in a democratic society and the public can be influenced (in th opposite way) by the voices criticising Fico," Kusý said. "Even some of his allies often back away from him and say, 'This is not our standpoint, this is the standpoint of the prime minister or the Smer party.'"

Kusý said similar attacks can be dangerous anyway. He also mentioned the parallels between the behaviour of Fico and former prime minister Vladimír Mečiar.

According to Kusý, Fico treats journalists like Mečiar used to - except that so far, no journalists have been attacked physically.

"But if the situation kept escalating, Smer supporters could easily be provoked to do so," he said. "Fico and his spokesperson say that the media are a corrupt group of rogues whose task it is to question this government. Any criticism is refused as unjustified, as an attack. Both prime ministers have this in common, and the result can be the same in the end."

- From press reports

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