OUTSIDE of the Shakespearean context, the phrase “something is rotten in the state of …” has evolved into a cliché that journalists use to describe deeply-rooted decay in a certain state of affairs or even in the whole of society. Although clichés tend to devalue textual invention, how can one resist using this particular phrase while reading the words of Anna Benešová, a judge of the Bratislava Regional Court, who in an interview with the daily Sme spoke about the pressures that her bosses exerted on her to favour the arguments of the then-justice minister and currently head of the Supreme Court, Štefan Harabin. So here it is: something is rotten in the state of the judiciary in Slovakia.
The seeds of the decay might have been planted long ago, or perhaps they were never weeded out completely, but they have been definitely nourished since Prime Minister Robert Fico invited Vladimír Mečiar, who in the mid-nineties brought Slovakia to the brink of international isolation, to co-rule in his government. Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) brought along Harabin to the post of justice minister. Since then, despite protests by numerous political ethics watchdogs, Harabin has now become the president of the country’s Supreme Court.
Benešová, who has served as a judge for more than 30 years, is now facing a disciplinary proceeding because she turned a deaf ear to advice coming from above on how to rule in those cases personally involving Harabin, according to her interview with daily Sme. The disciplinary proceeding against Benešová was initiated by the chair of the Bratislava Regional Court, purportedly because Benešová banned recordings of her court proceedings in two cases. On July 8 the court of first instance ruled she should be demoted to serve as a judge at a district court. All this despite the fact that all but one witness claimed that she had never banned recordings of her hearings.
To the question put by Sme of whether she had sensed some trouble when she first received Harabin’s case against the media, Benešová said “for me it is completely the same who is sitting on that chair, you [the reporter] or Harabin.”
“I have in front of me a file, a legal problem and Harabin is just a participant in the legal proceeding like the other party,” Benešová told daily Sme. “Obviously he does not like it. He does not realize that he is the same as the private entity who is the other party in the dispute and I have no reason to make distinctions only because he is a minister or my colleague.”
According to surveys, less than 27 percent of the population trusts the judiciary in Slovakia. With judges like Benešová – who by the way believes that 90 percent of her colleagues deserve credit as hard workers with professional attitudes – there is a ray of hope. But all this is happening in a time when public figures are using the courts to turn the media, particularly the press, into their personal cash machines. The current balance of the politicians’ court-awarded cash withdrawals for 2009 now stands at €309,305, according to medialne.sk.
Observers, media watchdogs, diplomats and editors openly talk about a very alarming tendency by politicians to intimidate the local press. All this is happening when local media is bleeding from multiple wounds suffered from a dramatic drop in advertising revenues: an impact both of the global economic downturn and the colossal print-versus-online struggle for readers.
The International Press Institute’s Colin Peters said that 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.”
Sme’s deputy editor-in-chief, Lukáš Fila, attributes much of this trend to the handiwork of Štefan Harabin, “who as justice minister appointed loyal judges to key posts within the judiciary and threatened to punish judges who refused to rule his way by starting disciplinary action against them which could result in their transfer to a lower court or other sanctions.”
This year, the country will remember the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, which will most probably force many people to weigh and assess the path this country has walked from November 17, 1989 until today. Yes, the path has been immeasurably tougher and more challenging than many students might have thought during those cold November evenings when they stood on public squares living the revolution. Among those grand principles then were freedom of the press, plurality of opinions and an independent judiciary. None of these is ever a permanent endowment and each needs to be continuously nourished, protected and even fought for.
Citizens need to be watchful and alert whenever there are even the slightest signs of corrosion in these basic tenets of democracy because in the deafening noise of political declarations about progress and respect for the rules, these precious objects can be easily broken and it might then take many years and the loss of many people’s faith to fix them again.
20. Jul 2009 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová