Journalists ponder effect of ruling on their freedom

A BRATISLAVA Regional Court verdict imposing a large fine on a radio station has raised new concerns about freedom of speech in Slovakia.

A BRATISLAVA Regional Court verdict imposing a large fine on a radio station has raised new concerns about freedom of speech in Slovakia.

In a judgement made in October but only released this month, the Bratislava Regional Court ruled that a private radio station, Radio Viva, which previously broadcast as Radio Twist, must pay Sk1 million (€33,194) to a judge, Jozef Soročina. Soročina was the unnamed subject of an October 2004 evening news story broadcast on Radio Twist by reporter Katarína Kudjaková. The story concerned a press conference given by the then interior minister, Vladimír Palko, and justice minister, Daniel Lipšic.

At the press conference both ministers alleged that Soročina – identified at the time only as Jozef S - who was then a judge of the Michalovce District Court, had issued a fraudulent verdict of execution against the Allianz-Slovenská Poisťovňa insurance company.

As a result of the verdict, the insurer was ordered to pay damages of more than Sk20 million. At the press conference, held on October 7 2004, Palko announced that Soročina was being accused of fraud by the police.

He is heard announcing this in Kudjaková’s report.

The report later included a recording of Palko saying: “With the help of a typewriter, he [Jozef S.] changed data: he changed the amount from 1,045,000 to 29,000,000 and the name of the lawyer to the name of the damaged person. He did something that must not be done. It was a fraud.”

The Radio Twist reporter, who is now a spokesperson for the Special Court, interspersed the two recordings of Palko’s speech with her own sentence: “The judge actually issued such a verdict of execution, but soon afterwards he falsified it.”

According to the Bratislava Regional Court ruling, signed by the chairperson of the court’s senate, Judge Katarína Stránská, the reporter should have inserted the words “according to Palko” into her sentence.

By not doing so, the court ruled, she expressed an “evaluating judgment” and thus interfered with the public reputation and dignity of the judge.

However, the ruling acknowledges the fact that Kudjaková’s report did not actually identify Soročina by name. In keeping with the ministers’ statements at the time, and Slovakia’s rules for reporting legal cases, Kudjaková referred to him only as Jozef S.

The ruling signed by Judge Stránská openly identifies Soročina.

The police launched the prosecution of Soročina in 2004, after a criminal notification by the justice minister, Lipšic.

A special prosecutor accused the judge of abusing the authority of a public body and falsifying and changing a public document.

According to the special prosecutor, Soročina authorised damages of several million crowns against Allianz-Slovenská Poisťovňa, even though the insurer was not a party to the proceedings. Soročina was alleged to have subsequently re-written the amount of damages and changed the name of the beneficiary.

The courts later acquitted Soročina. The Disciplinary Senate of the Supreme Court, moreover, stated that Soročina had not even committed any disciplinary misdemeanour.

After his acquittal, Soročina filed several criminal suits against the Interior and Justice Ministries, and against several media outlets.

Soročina’s lawyer, Juraj Kus, told the SITA newswire: “In different media, ex-ministers described Soročina as the biggest crook and a member of an organised group. They thus damaged his dignity and respect in a grave way, and discredited not only him but his family and close ones too.”

According to the chairman of the Association of Publishers of Periodical Press in Slovakia, Miloš Nemeček, sentencing a journalist for basically accurate quotation of a politician’s statement is an attack on the very core of freedom of speech and the right to information.

“Moreover, for reasons impenetrable to me, the regional court had not applied two principles which I consider crucial – the principle of public interest and the principle of appropriateness, which journalists should observe,” Nemeček told The Slovak Spectator.

Zuzana Krútka, chairperson of the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists (SSN), a professional organisation, is of a similar opinion to Nemeček. She told The Slovak Spectator that the SSN respects the independence of the judiciary. But in this specific case, she said, the court made the mistake of not hearing an expert on journalism or the media.

“Such an expert would most probably have come to the conclusion that the message conveyed by the broadcast report was the announcement of the prosecution of the judge, Jozef S.,” Krútka said. “The ‘evaluating judgement’, as the court put it, was in fact the reason why the prosecution was started.”

The SSN pointed out that judge Jozef S. had not asked Radio Viva to broadcast a report about his acquittal, but had instead immediately gone to court. “This verdict does not contribute to freedom of speech in our society. On the contrary, it makes journalists insecure when doing their jobs and could encourage speculative cases for protection of personality,” the statement said.

During the trial, the head of Radio Viva, Dušan Budzák, asked the court whether a journalist should ask, “bearing in mind such a verdict”, if the person being reported meant what they had said and if it was true.

“And after getting confirmation, should he then perhaps make some further investigation before publishing it, and check whether our top representative is sui juris [i.e. legally competent], and whether he or she is aware of the consequences of his or her statements? Such a proceeding would be absurd,” Budzák was quoted as saying by the Sme daily.

Budzák told The Slovak Spectator that as a result of this verdict journalists in Slovakia had been put in an absurd situation, since they were being punished for reporting information from a press conference.

“A journalist is supposed to report information about top politicians. That is his duty,” Budzák said.

He added that Radio Viva did not feel guilty, and will therefore use all the available remedies to appeal the verdict of the Regional Court.

“We are ready to appeal and to call for justice even at the European Court of Human Rights,” Budzák added.

One million crowns is too great a punishment for Radio Viva, and it could liquidate it, Budzák said, adding “Such decisions could easily liquidate any media outlet in Slovakia,”

After taking up his position at the start of 2007, the current justice minister, Štefan Harabin, nominated Soročina to become head of the Michalovce District Court.

According to Harabin, Soročina is a person who must be highly respected.

“His case was made the subject of media attention and scandal only to threaten other judges, and to increase the profits of insurance companies. This is the core of the issue,” Harabin told the weekly Trend in January 2007.

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