“THE DOGS are barking and the caravan goes on.” So said a leading representative of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) at a time when the media, opposition and the international community rained criticism down on the 1990s government of Vladimír Mečiar.
This cliché now has a rather bitter relevance after HZDS nominee Štefan Harabin was returned to the presidential chair at the Supreme Court.
Though the arguments listed against his election were sound, sharp and manifold, and should have resonated with the ears of the Judicial Council members, they did not.
Former justice minister Daniel Lipšic offered an explanation: “Two years ago he installed his own people there through parliament, government and the president,” Lipšic told The Slovak Spectator. “The make-up of the judicial council is such that they are purely his people. So it hasn’t surprised me.”
It is unhealthy for a society if an individual can so easily pave a route painted by his party colours to the presidential seat of the Supreme Court.
It is equally unhealthy if a single political party, in Slovakia’s case the HZDS, has nominees running both the Justice Ministry and the Supreme Court as well.
But the fact that HZDS has its tentacles in both the justice ministry and the judiciary does not appear to be keeping Prime Minister Robert Fico awake at night.
When asked whether he views some of the recent initiatives coming from the Justice Ministry as dangerous, he said: “the judiciary in Slovakia is independent and lives its own life.”
What a pity then that less than 27 percent of Slovak citizens appear to share this view, at least according to a recent Eurobarometer survey in which this pitiful number of correspondents said they trusted the courts in Slovakia.
Not everyone was so phlegmatic. In fact, not only did the symbolic dogs bark, but a bunch of young people performed a symbolic burial by bringing a coffin to the Justice Ministry and suggesting that justice died in Slovakia on the day Harabin was elected to the post.
And it seems that Harabin’s out-of-court settlement demands, sent to the publishers of the Sme, Pravda and Plus Jeden Deň dailies, has not blunted the teeth of media reports.
In his letters he told the publishers that their newspapers had severely damaged his good reputation and honour, and requested out-of-court settlements totalling €600,000 in compensation for the non-pecuniary damages he alleges he has suffered.
Editors felt that this was Harabin’s way of intimidating the press prior to the election. The International Press Institute (IPI) Slovakia, which expressed concerns over Harabin’s proceedings towards some media, shared their view.
The IPI in fact called on Harabin to restrain from intimidating media outlets by sending them out-of-court settlement proposals for huge sums, and suggested that he could instead use other, more normal, means such as requesting corrections or exercising his right to reply – a right enshrined in the very media law that his allies in the ruling coalition were so keen to pass last year.
All this is happening at a time when the media, especially in print, is working under immense economic pressure, jobs are being lost and there is an ever greater struggle to maintain the integrity needed to keep newspapers free of hidden advertising or reporting agreeable to particular businesses.
In a country where “courts may find that a metaphor is somehow libellous,” as a prominent diplomat noted recently, simply knowing that the media has to undergo an excruciating and often years-long trial by lawyers can create huge pressure on reporters, whose integrity is tested on a daily basis.
But irrespective of how critical the ruling coalition is of the press, journalists regularly pass fundamental integrity tests which nominees of the Slovak National Party, to name but one example, have failed serially in recent months.
It can be hardly a positive signal for the international community if the country’s justice minister, by now the Supreme Court president, seeks disproportionate damages in civil actions.
Perhaps the hidden slogan of the ruling coalition is actually still “the dogs bark and the caravan goes on”.