When courts fail, media deliver justice

Back in simpler times, back in the 1980s, we were taught that age determines politics. As one teacher put it, if you’re not a socialist in your twenties you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative in your forties you have no brain.

Back in simpler times, back in the 1980s, we were taught that age determines politics. As one teacher put it, if you’re not a socialist in your twenties you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative in your forties you have no brain.

So it always seemed with journalism. The older one grew, surely, the more difficult it would be to stomach the media’s complacent sense of entitlement; its contentment with the power that corrupts it; or what Kingsley Amis called “its non-committal superiority of manner, its pervasive unspecific irony, and its cruising hostility”. I never imagined that I would be doing this job in my forties, because at my age one’s own sense of fallibility precludes copping an attitude towards anyone else.

But two things happened. First, I stayed in the job too long and enjoyed myself too much to now be any good at anything else. And second, I live in Slovakia, where the media has to do the job of the police and of the courts, in addition to performing its not unimportant role of informing and entertaining. So you can often get away with hostility, irony and a superior manner, because without the media no public sentence would ever be delivered on the bad guys.

Convicted in the court of public opinion

It’s difficult to know when it started, this inability of the Slovak system to deal properly with crooked politicians, gangsters or tycoons. Was it in the early 1990s, when it was decided not to go after former top Communists or secret police? Did it start during Communism itself, when dissidents were punished and collaborators rewarded? Or has it always been a part of the Slovak nature, this reluctance to cut the comb of the aristocracy?

Whatever the case, it was in full swing when The Slovak Spectator began publishing in 1995. That was the year Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar’s henchmen kidnapped the son of the president, his political rival, drugged him and dumped him in Austria. After the president’s term ended in 1998, Mečiar inherited some of his powers, such as the ability to issue amnesties. Which he promptly extended to all those involved in the Kováč Jr. kidnapping, preventing the case from ever coming to trial.

If not for the work of the Slovak media, we would never know the names of the kidnappers, how the crime was carried out, or who ordered it. Then-secret service director Ivan Lexa may today be enjoying his freedom and his horses on his ranch in western Slovakia, but he will never again be able to darken the door of a pub without people recognizing his face.

Around the Spectator’s fifth anniversary, there was a half-hearted effort to bring Mečiar to book, which included the police blowing the doors off his mansion to bring him in for questioning. Unsurprisingly, the police were never able to assemble enough evidence to indict the former PM for money laundering. It took the media to winkle out the paper trail and show how Mečiar had concocted an explanation for his millions.

Not that the police were biased, of course. They were equally ineffective in exploring money laundering allegations against Mečiar’s political rivals in the SDKÚ. When it was discovered during then-PM Mikuláš Dzurinda’s second term that many people listed as party donors had never actually given the SDKÚ any money, the men in green lay down on the job, failing to confront the statements of party officials with those of the fake donors, or even to request the financial records of the donors to see whether they had ever possessed so much money. The case was closed with unseemly speed, and if not for the media (yes, and current PM Robert Fico’s gleefully supplied evidence), questions over the SDKÚ’s financing would remain just that.

Since 1989 very few top politicians have gone to jail for their crimes, and certainly none have done time recently. Even in the simplest cases, in which politicians were caught with bribe money in their briefcases or in which phonetaps caught them demanding a five percent commission, a guilty verdict was beyond the courts to deliver. In other, less socially dangerous incidents – such as the almost painful inebriation of HZDS party MP Ján Cuper during a TV interview following his one-car crash – politicians’ immunity from prosecution has shielded them from their just desserts.

Mafia mishaps

Politicians are not the only ones to enjoy the forbearance of the courts. Organised crime also has little to fear from their traditional enemies.

Only one Slovak baddie has been taken out of circulation (other than feet first) – Mikuláš Černák, Slovakia’s version of Leroy Brown (baddest man in the whole damn town). Černák has spent most of the past 13 years in prison, alternating between jail and pre-trial custody, and between murder and extortion charges. But the price of keeping him there has been a heavy one. In order to secure their convictions, the police have had to cut deals with all of Černák’s gang.

Normally, police would identify the weakest link in the chain, and get him to sink the rest. Remember Tommaso Buscetta, the Sicilian mafioso who was the first to turn pentito and broke omerta? His testimony alone put hundreds of Italian and US mobsters in jail in the 1980s. Here, however, the way the Černák case has been handled speaks volumes about the Slovak justice system. I know the prosecutors and some of the police involved, and they are as professional, experienced and straight as the country has to offer. They claim to be sitting on 30 to 40 murder charges, waiting to bring them out in the event the courts suddenly decide to let Černák go. And they still have to issue get-out-of-jail cards to all his friends to keep him behind bars.

I recently met a man who inhabits the shadowy zone between gangsters and politicians. He is a 15-year police veteran, a karate enthusiast, and very tough-looking. Although he is almost 50, his leather jacket still sits on his shoulders as if on a coat-hanger. When I mentioned I was writing a book about his friends on both sides of the divide, he shook his head. To his mind it was a fool’s errand. “People who are interested in that kind of stuff already know the truth, and the rest of the country doesn’t care and never will. All you’ll succeed in doing is making 150 enemies.”

I must admit, his certainty shook me. I’m more mindful of lawsuits and the malice of bad men than I was at 20, and I’m also aware that a critical, well-researched article or even a book cannot make up for a failed court system. But they can deliver some measure of satisfaction to an outraged public. And in a country where the justice system performs neither of its central functions – punishing the guilty or comforting the innocent – the media has to deliver on both.

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