Human rights still in the spotlight

TWENTY years of democracy, as opposed to the communist regime which ruled the country prior to November 1989, have apparently not been enough for Slovakia to deal with all the human rights issues that belong partly to the legacy of communism. Problems with transparency in public procurement, the independence of the judiciary or freedom of the press continue to raise concerns among the international community. The recently released Human Rights Report by the US Department of State has again served to highlight unease.

TWENTY years of democracy, as opposed to the communist regime which ruled the country prior to November 1989, have apparently not been enough for Slovakia to deal with all the human rights issues that belong partly to the legacy of communism. Problems with transparency in public procurement, the independence of the judiciary or freedom of the press continue to raise concerns among the international community. The recently released Human Rights Report by the US Department of State has again served to highlight unease.

The US Department of State Human Rights Report 2009, which US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton presented in Washington on March 11, 2010, identifies several problems concerning human rights in Slovakia.

“Notable human rights problems included some continuing reports of police mistreatment of Romani suspects and lengthy pretrial detention; restrictions on freedom of religion; concerns about the integrity of the judiciary, corruption in national government, local government, and government health services; violence against women and children; trafficking in women and children; and societal discrimination and violence against Roma and other minorities,” the introduction to the report reads.


The judiciary – not completely independent?



According to the report, despite the theoretical independence of the judiciary being guaranteed by law, in practice “problems with corruption, official intimidation of judges, inefficiency, and a lack of accountability continued to undermine judicial independence”.

In this regard, the report mentions reported cases of judges being subject to high-level influence and pressure by the government and cases where judges felt they faced attempts to influence their decision making as well as intimidation via disciplinary action.

According to Zuzana Wienk of the Fair-Play Alliance, an NGO which has been dealing extensively with the problems of the judiciary, the main problem of the Slovak judiciary nowadays is the fact that the judiciary has ceased to fulfil its role of protecting the rule of law and became liable to manipulation by politics and power.

“A total decay has started, which resembles a return to totalitarianism, or a civilisation shift from the rule of law to the rule of money, power and arbitrariness,” Wienk told The Slovak Spectator. She explained that in her view the reason why the judiciary has deteriorated so much in the past year is that it has been ruled over by power, with the use of tools to silence and destroy critics and enforce unlawful and unjust decision making.

Among the notable development in the judiciary in 2009 the report lists the Constitutional Court’s ruling that the Special Court, which had been designed to deal with cases of official corruption and organised crime, was unconstitutional. The Special Court was later replaced by the Specialised Criminal Court, which fulfils the same tasks under slightly different conditions.

Other notable events also included the election of then-Justice Minister Štefan Harabin to the post of chairman of the Supreme Court and the Judicial Council, a move strongly criticised by several civil society representatives; as well as disciplinary proceedings taken against many judges, several of whom have been demoted for alleged violation of rules.

The report mentions criticism of some disciplinary actions as unfair, “such as the cases of judges suspended from function for filing a criminal complaint against Harabin”.

“Disciplinary actions related to procrastination appeared heavily inconsistent – in some cases judges faced suspension from function for procrastination, while in other similar cases there was no action,” the report reads.

The Human Rights Report remarked in its evaluation of the judiciary that public scepticism towards the court system remains widespread among Slovak citizens.

Wienk believes that the public perceives the problems related to the independence of the judiciary as being problematic, but says part of the public is not even aware of the reports about the critical state of judiciary, while another part is ignorant because they believe that these problems do not concern them.

Media freedom



The report’s chapter on freedom of speech focuses largely on Slovakia’s new Press Code, which came into effect in June 2008 and introduced the infamous right to reply, which PM Robert Fico used in November 2009 against the Sme daily despite the fact that he had claimed he would not do so, since the provision was supposed to have been designed to benefit ordinary citizens who had no other means to defend themselves in the press.

Analyst Ivan Godársky from the NGO Memo 98 said the law has brought changes to the media environment. Six months after it came into effect it is clear, he said, that some of the concerns voiced by journalists were justified.

“The fact is that citizens use [the right to reply] only to a minimal extent,” Godársky told The Slovak Spectator. “The law is mainly being used by politicians, businessmen or local administrations – that means groups that have other means to react.”

The report also mentions that “government, judiciary and political elites targeted the press in a number of civil defamation lawsuits, which often required the press to pay large sums of money”, which might eventually lead to self-censorship in the media. Fico, Harabin and Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) leader and controversial former prime minister Vladimír Mečiar are mentioned among those who were awarded high damages in lawsuits against the press.

According to Godársky, this is a problem mainly in relation to the smaller media that cannot defend themselves so easily.

“The fact that cannot be doubted is that the lawsuits have become more frequent, but what is even more alarming is that the lawsuits end in confirming the requests of politicians,” Godársky said. “And the rulings are unbelievable. As has often been said, it’s enough to compare the damages awarded in these lawsuits to compensation [awarded to] those who suffered from some natural disasters.”

The relation between the authorities and the media has, in general, worsened ever since the Fico-led government took power in 2006. In this regard the report mentions Fico’s press conference from December 2009 in which he accused the publishers of the press of conspiring against him, of attacking his family and of operating like the mafia.

According to Godársky the worsening of relations betrays a misunderstanding on the part of government officials about the media’s role and how democracy should function.

“In the end we must always realise that the state administration and public bodies work from the taxes of the citizens, and that means they should serve the citizens, and not vice versa,” he said, adding that “the media [should be] seen as representing the interests of the citizens in relation to some revelations.”

Anti-Roma discrimination continues



According to the report, government as well as societal discrimination against Roma and individuals of non-European ethnicity was a common problem. Specific mention was given to the case of mistreatment by policemen of six Roma boys being held in detention in Košice on March 21, 2009.

The summer of 2009 was marked by deteriorating relations with the two largest minorities living in Slovakia: the amended State Language Act, which came into effect on September 1, outraged the Hungarian-speaking minority; while Roma faced racially motivated attacks and rallies “against Roma terror” organised mainly by the far-right organisation Slovenská Pospolitosť and its leader Marian Kotleba.

The report refers to unemployment problems and discrimination against Roma in various situations.

It also describes an event from October 2009, when the local government of the eastern Slovak village of Ostrovany constructed a concrete wall. This, it said, was to protect the houses, land and gardens of non-Roma citizens from Roma living in a neighbouring settlement.

At the time, Štefan Šarközi from the Institute of Roma Public Policy criticised the wall, which he said put all the Roma inhabitants of the settlement into one category: thieves. He told The Slovak Spectator that building the wall was an easy solution, but it was not clear where that left the people on both sides and what would happen next.

He compared the wall to a reservation and called it a failure of society on both sides. According to him, the money would have been better spent on prevention: on work by social workers in the settlement and guards to prevent crime.

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