A NERVOUS man with a red tie is being told by his physician that since his x-rays show he has no spine his cervical spine problems are only “phantom pains”. It is a cartoon, but the image has sufficiently angered Slovakia’s prime minister that he is now suing the daily newspaper which printed it.
Prime Minister Robert Fico is demanding €33,000 in damages from the Sme daily for the cartoon, which he says made fun of his serious health condition while at the same time ridiculing him.
The cartoon was drawn by Martin Šútovec, alias Shooty, and ran in early July this year. At the time, Fico was reported to be suffering from cervical spine problems, though the cabinet office declined to answer questions about the details of his condition.
The libel action follows a series of others legal suits which have prompted the country’s courts to award over €300,000 in damages to public officials in civil cases brought against publishers and other media during 2009 alone.
Media observers were quick to place Fico’s move in the context of Slovak public officials’ habit of suing publishers for hefty damages, but also pointed out that a libel suit over a cartoon or satirical representation represents a particularly controversial response in a society that claims to support a free press. They also suggested that for public officials, being subject to public scrutiny – and sometimes ridicule – comes with the territory.
“When a person runs for office, they must be fully aware that they are opening themselves up to a closer level of public scrutiny, criticism, and, at times, ridicule,” Colin Peters, press freedom adviser for Europe and the Americas with the International Press Institute (IPI) told The Slovak Spectator. “These are part and parcel of the job of politician. Politicians are lampooned in cartoons every single day all around the world – this may at times seem irreverent, but this irreverence should never become a concern of the courts.”
Furthermore, Peters added, it appears that a Slovak public figure has once again chosen to bypass the alternative, recommended forms of redress to which people like Fico can turn when they feel their reputations have been damaged, namely self-regulatory bodies such as the Slovak Press Council.
However, Fico, in comments about the case reported by Sme itself, claimed that the cartoon clearly took advantage of his serious, painful health condition and ridiculed his pain while harming his dignity. Lawyers explained that the essence of any cartoon is that it is an exaggeration and that it should not be treated as a news item.
Sme’s editor-in-chief, Matúš Kostolný, responded in a commentary that the cartoon is in fact the freest of all the journalistic genres and that “Fico either does not have a sense of humour or a sense for freedom of expression. Otherwise he would have not sued this daily over a cartoon”.
“Prime Minister Fico grew up in a society where people only told jokes about his predecessors in secret,” Kostolný wrote in his piece, published on September 6. “A joke about the prime minister carried the risk of instant punishment.”
Kostolný added that the prime minister has perhaps forgotten that 20 years have passed since those times: since then it has been possible to tell or draw jokes freely.
While such libel suits are quite rare in the democratic world, they are not completely unheard of, according to Peters of the IPI.
“A case in Spain a couple of years back raised serious press freedom concerns, when two cartoonists faced criminal charges for poking fun at the Spanish royal family, and ended up receiving fines of around €3,000,” Peters said.
In recent years, Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has also targeted cartoonists with lawsuits, according to Peters.
“Given Prime Minister Erdogan's record with regards to press freedom, however, his is certainly not an example that Prime Minister Fico should seek to emulate,” Peters added.
Peters also suggested that one should look at this case in the context of the numerous instances over the past year of Slovak public officials suing newspapers and broadcasters for large amounts.
“These contribute to a climate of intolerance towards criticism and, in this case, even satire, that could make journalists and commentators alike think twice before carrying out their vital role of bringing critical news and commentary to the general public,” Peters concluded.
Fico has always had a somewhat troubled relationship with the media and has several times described the press as a “new opposition force” which, in his words, is completely biased and harms national and state interests. Fico has also said that the press fails to “stand behind the common people”.
International organisations and the diplomatic community have voiced concerns about the independence of the judiciary when adjudicating libel cases. Top diplomats have also grown more concerned that despite the availability of multiple remedies under the Press Code enacted last year, many public figures have chosen to file libel suits demanding very high financial awards. Investigative journalism by some Slovak media sources has recently revealed several serious cases of political cronyism and exposed a series of damaging political scandals that have involved both members of Fico’s own party as well as his ruling coalition partners.
14. Sep 2009 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová