JUSTICE Minister Štefan Harabin has attracted public attention not only as the candidate most tipped to become head of the Slovak Supreme Court, but also for sending out-of-court settlement proposals to the publishers of the Sme, Pravda and Plus Jeden Deň dailies, and the Plus 7 Dní weekly. In his letters Harabin stated that they had published articles that had severely damaged his good reputation and honour and requested out-of-court settlements of €200,000 from each publisher to be sent to his account within 40 days in compensation for the non-pecuniary damages he alleges he has suffered. The cumulative sum requested from all periodicals is €600,000 (Plus Jeden Deň and Plus 7 Dní share the same publisher).
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Colin Peters, press freedom adviser for Europe and the Americas with the International Press Institute (IPI), about Harabin’s attempts to obtain damages.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Is it a standard procedure on the part of a political representative to demand such high sums in a proposed out-of-court settlement?
Colin Peters (CP): As such agreements are often undisclosed, it’s not possible to say whether this is standard procedure or not. However, we certainly do not condone such action, particularly by such a high-ranking politician, and particularly when there were other forms of redress available to him.
It's disappointing that an individual who, in a manner of speaking, “represents” justice in Slovakia, has bypassed all other forms of redress laid out in the law and taken recourse instead to demanding large sums of cash.
TSS: What impact might such a proposal have on the media in Slovakia, especially during a period when publishers are suffering from economic pressures due to the global downturn?
CP: The obvious threat is that of forcing media into insolvency - particularly if the periodicals threatened buckle to Harabin’s demand, thus setting a precedent for others who might seek to enrich themselves in such a way.
TSS: Several state officials have been targeting the Slovak press through civil defamation lawsuits. In your opinion, what impact does such a tendency have on the media environment?
CP: Apart from the financial impact, crucial in an economic climate such as the one we are experiencing, the media may feel bullied into practising self-censorship to avoid influential politicians demanding large sums of money.
If Harabin is genuinely seeking redress for what he feels is damage done to his reputation, we feel he is taking the wrong approach. He is, in my opinion, holding the newspapers to ransom, with the threat of lengthy court procedures and the possibility of exaggerated damages should they fail to pay up.
Harabin's actions typify one of the main concerns to come out of IPI’s recent fact-finding mission to Bratislava, namely that some Slovak judges are demanding disproportionate damages in civil actions, and that the judiciary itself is not acting in an independent manner. We would urge Harabin to retract this demand.