Constitutional Court backs press rights

A BREEZE of hope for the media emanated from Slovakia’s Constitutional Court when its second senate ruled that lower courts had violated a Slovak weekly’s right to free speech when ordering it to pay hefty damages to a judge.

A BREEZE of hope for the media emanated from Slovakia’s Constitutional Court when its second senate ruled that lower courts had violated a Slovak weekly’s right to free speech when ordering it to pay hefty damages to a judge.

The decision comes at a time when a number of senior political officials and judges have sued the media using libel lawsuits with demands for hefty personal compensation.

“This verdict is so remarkable that it deserves a place in constitutional law textbooks,” said Peter Wilfling, who is associated with the Via Iuris civic association.

The chairman of the court senate, Lajos Mészáros, along with judges Sergej Kohút and Juraj Horváth concluded that the lower courts had violated the free speech rights of the Plus 7 Dní weekly when it was ordered to pay €8,333 in compensation to Judge Pavol Polka for what Polka had alleged was defamation, according to the news website.

Wilfling likened the in-depth approach taken by the Constitutional Court panel and what he called the transparency of its arguments to a “breeze of fresh air” having blown through the courthouse, and compared it favourably with previous rulings by the country's most senior court.

“After several controversial steps taken by the leadership of the Constitutional Court undermining the credibility of the court, it is good news that a decision of European quality can emerge,” wrote Wilfling in a piece published on the website

This decision is important for several reasons, said Lukáš Fila, deputy editor-in-chief of the Sme daily.

“First, it confirms that judges should be subject to public control, much like politicians,” Fila told The Slovak Spectator. “Until now, many in the judiciary have claimed that judges and their decisions shouldn’t be questioned.”

Secondly, Fila said, the decision directly states that journalists have a special status and should be given leeway when writing about the judiciary.

“And thirdly, it explicitly encourages public debate about the courts, which is a dramatic shift. So far, the judiciary has tended to be secretive,” Fila said.

As to what impact that the court decision might have, Fila said that media organisations have many cases filed against them in courts and seeing this precedent, they will certainly try to turn to the Constitutional Court.

Judge Polka sued Plus 7 Dní for an article entitled “Slovakia is on trial” in which the weekly’s editor expressed frustration over what he called a tendency by some Slovak courts to approve higher damage awards for judges who claimed defamation than damages for political prisoners or the parents of children killed by drunk drivers. The editor, as described in Wilfling’s online article, also wrote that Polka had already won millions of Slovak crowns in damages for his claimed defamation and suggested that the approval of such high damages might be a source of corruption.

Polka claimed that the article was defamation to his person and also objected to the editor’s use of the word “won” because the verdicts had not yet become final at the time the article was written. Both a district and then a regional court upheld Polka’s defamation claim.

However, the senate of the Constitutional Court overruled the verdict of the Bratislava Regional Court which had approved the €8,333 in damages for Polka. The senate also suggested that there was no unjustified intervention into the honour of Polka because the published article was protected by freedom of speech. The Constitutional Court ruled that the “judiciary is a legitimate issue of public interest” and “social discourse with elements of criticism deserves increased protection when the concerned claims belong to this category,” wrote Wilfling.

According to Wilfling, the decision will be of major significance for similar cases in which judges are suing media outlets. He added that the number of such cases has been growing in Slovakia, while also referring to a recent incident in which Supreme Court President Štefan Harabin sent a letter to the publisher of the Trend economic weekly on behalf of the Supreme Court itself seeking an out-of-court settlement of €200,000.

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