SLOVAK media can add yet another lost trial to their headachy list of libel cases brought by public officials against the country’s publishers. A senate of the Supreme Court ruled on September 30 that the publisher of the Plus 7 Dní weekly, the 7 Plus company, must pay Supreme Court President, Štefan Harabin over €31,000 for an article published in April 2005, the Sme daily reported.
The story in Plus 7 Dní had described a visit by police officers from the Anti-Corruption Office to the Supreme Court building. The police sought to question Harabin after he had not responded to their summons to come to the police station.
Harabin’s lawsuit claimed that the article contained untrue statements and criticised a part of the article which stated that he started his career at the Supreme Court at the end of the third government of former PM Vladimír Mečiar as a candidate proposed by the Slovak National Party (SNS) to be president of the court as well as that he survived the political turmoil of 1998 only because of support from the Slovak Democratic Left party (SDĽ), according to Sme.
Sme quoted the court senate as stating “the article makes it seem like the person of the judge is connected with a dependence on several political parties” and all judges are supposed to be politically independent.
The International Press Institute, a global watchdog organisation for the media, said earlier this year that while it is not unheard of for large damages to be awarded in other European countries, the large number of cases in Slovakia and the fact that most have been initiated by public officials is a trend specific to this country.
In 2006 Harabin was nominated by the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) for the post of Justice Minister which he held until June 2009 when he was elected President of the Supreme Court.
The Bratislava District Court first ruled on this case and said that the article contained untrue statements but ordered Harabin to be paid only around a half of the €33,000 he had requested. The Bratislava Regional Court overturned the penalty aspect of the lower court’s ruling but the district court reissued its decision, ruling that Harabin had not proven such a large impact on his private or professional life. The regional court again over-ruled the district court and in February 2009 ordered 7 Plus to pay €31,467 to Harabin.
The Supreme Court heard an appeal filed by 7 Plus and on September 30 ruled against the publisher. The publisher can now appeal to Slovakia’s Constitutional Court or to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg.
The Pravda daily pointed out that the whole process took an unusually short time for Slovakia’s judiciary since only two years had passed between the first verdict of the district court and the final ruling of the Supreme Court. Pravda mentioned several legal cases where the courts took considerably longer such as a lawsuit filed by a resident of Váhovce whose house was permanently flooded by the Kráľová dam that was in the court system from 1988 until 2003.
Prime Minister Robert Fico has also complained about the long duration of court processes and has said he wants to propose that the courts act more quickly in cases involving the protection of one’s honour and personality. Such an idea has been already rejected as being discriminatory by Slovakia’s Constitutional Court, Pravda reported.
Since 2006 Harabin has won court judgments ordering damages of more than €181,000 from publishers, including Plus 1 Deň, Plus 7 Dní, Pravda and Sme.
In May 2009 Harabin sent letters to four Slovak media outlets asking for large out-of-court settlements for what he claimed were negative allegations appearing in the publications which harmed his reputation. Harabin sent that letter to the publishers of the Sme, Pravda and Plus 1 Deň dailies and to the Plus 7 Dní weekly, requesting a combined sum of €600,000 be sent to his account within 40 days as compensation for non-pecuniary damages he alleged to have suffered. Harabin charges that the periodicals published a series of libellous articles between 2008 and 2009 that linked him to organised crime.
The letters have attracted international attention when 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 was monitoring the case.