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Sme daily loses libel trial

A SLOVAK court awarded another high sum to a former public official in a libel trial against the press: a tendency which has been followed by the local media and also the International Press Institute with growing concern.

A SLOVAK court awarded another high sum to a former public official in a libel trial against the press: a tendency which has been followed by the local media and also the International Press Institute with growing concern.

The publisher of the Sme daily has been thumped with a court ruling ordering a hefty cash award to be paid to a former police boss in a civil trial. On July 10, the Michalovce court ruled that the publisher of daily Sme, Petit Press, must pay €99,000 in damages to former police president Ján Pipta and also publish an apology. This would be the highest sum paid to a public official by any media this year. The court’s ruling can still be appealed.

“We view this tendency with concern, both for the self-censorship it could lead to in the critical media, and for the financial impact such damages could have on the media organisations themselves,” Colin Peters, press freedom adviser for Europe and the Americas with the International Press Institute (IPI) told The Slovak Spectator. “While it is not unheard of for large damages to be awarded in other European countries, the number of cases and the fact that most are initiated by public officials seems to be a trend specific to Slovakia at present.”

In actuality, the daily newspaper only wrote a report about a television program broadcast by private broadcaster Markíza in January 2008 which referred to a classified document which purportedly contained information that Pipta was involved in cigarette smuggling.

The daily also included in its story that the head of the Interior Ministry’s inspection office had denied the information.

Pipta did not sue Markíza since the television station did not mention Pipta by name in its broadcast, only describing the person as the former police president.

The daily Sme noted that Pipta was granted higher damages by this court than was a mother whose only daughter was killed by a vehicle driver or to a girl whose mother was hit by an inattentive driver.

The global crisis and the local judiciary are currently the main threats to the proper functioning of Slovak media, the deputy editor-in-chief of daily Sme, Lukáš Fila, said when assessing the main challenges for media today.

“The sanctions are completely out of proportion with amounts awarded to relatives of victims of fatal accidents or with past rulings, which suggests that the main aim of the courts is not to come up with fair decisions but to punish the media and provide an easy source of income to politicians and fellow judges,” Fila told The Slovak Spectator

According to Fila, some media are already adopting a policy of ignoring officials from the judiciary in their news coverage.

“The result will be less accountability,” said Fila. “For those that do continue covering these issues, the results can be devastating. Smaller media can literally not afford to lose two or three cases if the sanctions continue to be as high.”

According to medialne.sk, the current balance of the politicians’ court-awarded payments for 2009 stands at €309,305.

More concretely, Spoločnosť 7 Plus, the publisher of Plus 7 Dní weekly and Plus 1 Deň daily, was ordered to pay Robert Fico €8,298 and a further €31,468 was ordered to the account of Štefan Harabin for the same publisher. In another court case, Fico cashed in from Spoločnosť 7 Plus €9,958 and then yet another €66,388 on a different case against the same publishing house. For Petit Press, the publisher of the daily Sme, a case brought by Harabin against it should bring €33,000 to the account of the former justice minister while the publishing house also lost a case brought by the former boss of the Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS), Ivan Lexa, when a court awarded payment of €33,193 and now the most recent case in which the former police president Ján Pipta was awarded €99,000, the highest sum this year if the publishing house’s appeal is denied.

TREND holding company lost a trial with Robert Fico with a €8,000 price tag while Ringier, the publisher of the daily Nový Čas, had to pay €20,000 to the boss of the Slovak National Party, a junior member of the ruling coalition, according to information published by medialne.sk and the SITA and TASR newswires on all of these cases.


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