INTERNATIONAL media freedom watchdogs have once again turned their attention to Slovakia after learning that former justice minister and current President of the Supreme Court, Štefan Harabin, sent out-of-court settlement proposals to four Slovak media outlets in June demanding huge payouts as damages for negative allegations that appeared in the publications.
Harabin claims the stories harmed his reputation. Harabin’s actions follow the passage of last year’s controversial Press Code by the Slovak parliament giving public figures the opportunity to respond to criticism in the media.
The representative for Freedom of the Media of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Miklós Haraszti, stated in his regular report to the Permanent Council on July 2 that he is monitoring the case involving the letter sent by the then-Justice Minister Harabin to three publishers.
“In an out-of-court settlement, Minister Harabin, who is now President of the Slovak Supreme Court, requested a payment of €200,000 from each of them,” Haraszti wrote in the report. “He demanded that the amount be paid within 40 days for articles and broadcasts in 2008 and 2009. He claims the stories harmed his good reputation and honour. He reminded the publishers of financial payments he had previously received as compensation for moral damage stemming from false allegations about his person.”
Harabin sent the proposals to publishers of the Sme, Pravda and Plus Jeden Deň dailies and to the Plus 7 Dní weekly.
In his letters Minister Harabin requested that the sums be sent to his account within 40 days, in compensation for 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). Harabin alleges that between 2008 and 2009 the periodicals published a series of libellous articles which linked him to organised crime.
The media received Harabin’s letters shortly before the balloting to elect Slovakia’s Supreme Court president in which Harabin ran as one of the two candidates. His candidacy raised protests by several non-governmental organizations who claimed he was not the right person to guarantee the independence of the judicial power in the state. Slovakia’s Judicial Council eventually elected him to the post by a near-unanimous vote.
The editors of the dailies said that the minister had not responded when the stories appeared and that they believe the letters are an attempt to intimidate the independent media.
“It is very unusual and unhealthy for society,” Sme’s editor-in-chief Matúš Kostolný told The Slovak Spectator. “If the clearing of his name was what Minister Harabin really cared about, he should have spoken out a year ago when the media covered his relationship with [alleged drug dealer] Baki Sadiki.”
According to Ivan Godársky from the Memo 98 media-watch civic association, the basic problem with Harabin’s letters is that he is requesting the publishers to pay him extremely large sums of money without specifying exactly which articles damaged his honour.
“Politicians should be ready to accept higher levels of public criticism,” Godársky told The Slovak Spectator. “Harabin did not use any of the avenues offered by the new Press Code. He went straight to the media with the out-of-court settlement demands.”
What Godársky considers even more serious, however, is the fact that Slovak courts have recently awarded large sums of money to politicians for damages claimed from published articles.
“This is a very unfortunate moment. The courts should be aware that the press is only free when it can publish things that are sometimes shocking and disturbing, since this is sometimes the only way to open people’s eyes,” Godársky said.
The sums politicians receive for damages to their honour and good name are often much higher than the damages the state usually pays to the families of victims of accidents, Godársky added.
“Looking at it from this angle, it’s more than sad,” said Godársky.