Slovakia's most virulent opposition newspaper, the daily Sme, got hit with 4.25 million crown fine.
Collage by Slavomír Danko
While government officials said that the case, filed two years ago, was a simple one of injury done to their reputations by irresponsible journalists, media representatives called the verdict "ridiculous." The newspaper's publisher, meanwhile, said that both journalists and politicians should become more objective and professional in their conduct.
Judge Katarína Fakanová of the Bratislava I County Court delivered the verdict. It obliges VMV, the publisher of Sme, to apologize publicly to members of the government and pay 500,000 Sk ($14,000) to Meciar, 450,000 Sk to each of three Deputy Premiers and 400,000 Sk to the remaining six ministers who joined the suit. The issue at stake was a story published in Sme on May 14, 1996 about a memorial service for held for Robert Remiáš, who was slain in an unsolved car explosion in April 1996. The Sme story quoted a speech from the service as follows: "These are the first victims of the cold war waged on Slovak citizens by their Government." The various ministers claimed in their lawsuit that the story had "caused substantial psychological trauma" to them.
According to a 1997 book by Luba Lesná, "The Kidnapping of the President's Son," Remiáš was a friend and intermediary for Oscar Fegyveres, the witness who testified that the state secret police, the Slovak Information Service (SIS), had been involved in the infamous 1995 kidnapping of the former President's son, Michal Kováč Jr.
"It is ridiculous to sentence a daily newspaper for quoting someone," said Ján Füle, chairman of the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists. Marián Kardoš, director of the Government Press Department, however, pronounced himself satisfied with the verdict. "An independent court decided according to the law," he said, "that several members [of the Government] were unjustly attacked by the daily."
"We are going to appeal it," said Alexej Fulmek, CEO of VMV. "However, if a regional court confirms the verdict, it's over. We cannot appeal to the Supreme Court ."
The case was already tried once, in central Slovakia's Banská Bystrica, where the county court also found in favour of the Government. VMV appealed that decision to the Regional Court in Košice, which sent the case to Bratislava to be retried. According to parts of the Košice court verdict which were published in Sme, "it will be necessary in the retrial for a court to request that [ministers] propose evidence by which a court can assess [the trauma they alleged]."
According to Milan Ruzbarský, the VMV attorney, this trauma was not fully documented. "The court did not deal with the heart of the matter," he said, adding that the judge had only listened to the testimony of the ministers. Ivan Hudec, the Minister of Culture, was quoted in Sme as saying that, as a result of the Remiaš story, "my brother-in-law did not invite me to the wedding of his son."
But the Government vs. Sme is only one of many libel cases involving VMV. "There are numerous suits against us," admitted Fulmek, "and some of those we are probably going to lose." He explained that these concern only stories Sme reprinted from other papers without checking their facts.
However, the danger of being sued is not limited to reprinted information; unnamed and reluctant sources also constitute athreat. "The risks are great as information sources used by our journalists are impossible to bring to court - we are not able to provide those witnesses [there]," said Fulmek. In reponse, VMV is pressing writers to be more careful in their reporting.