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Alleged wiretapping by the state provokes concern (updated November 22)

THE DAILIES Pravda and Nový Čas came out on November 21 with a story that provoked serious concerns within the media: Pravda’s reporters had been wiretapped by the Military Defence Intelligence (VOS). Nový Čas reported that the phone of the head of Slovakia’s news television channel TA3 had also been tapped, claiming that it has access to transcripts of the phone conversations made by VOS, which works within the Ministry of Defence. The alleged wiretapping was stopped after the fall of the right-wing government, according to Pravda.

THE DAILIES Pravda and Nový Čas came out on November 21 with a story that provoked serious concerns within the media: Pravda’s reporters had been wiretapped by the Military Defence Intelligence (VOS). Nový Čas reported that the phone of the head of Slovakia’s news television channel TA3 had also been tapped, claiming that it has access to transcripts of the phone conversations made by VOS, which works within the Ministry of Defence. The alleged wiretapping was stopped after the fall of the right-wing government, according to Pravda.

Defence Minister Ľubomír Galko, a nominee of the junior co-ruling Freedom and Solidarity party, has already filed a criminal complaint against an unknown offender for what he described as suspicion of committing the crime of tampering with personal data.

“Now everything will be in the hands of investigative bodies, in whom I have full trust,” said Galko after meeting with Prime Minister Iveta Radičová. He did not make it possible for the media to ask additional questions.

The editor-in-chief of Pravda, Nora Slišková, wrote in her cover-page editorial that “the Defense Ministry has invented an enemy of the state, the Pravda daily.” She added that it is difficult to imagine that these practices, which she compared to the operation of the Communist secret police ŠtB, could have taken place without the minister of defense knowing about them.

The daily claims that the wiretapping was ordered by the head of the military intelligence service. It alleges that the phones of three reporters from the domestic politics department - the head of the department Patrícia Poprocká, and reporters Peter Kováč and Vanda Vavrová - had been tapped.

Nový Čas reported that the VOS also monitored the head of the TA3 news channel, Michal Gučík. The paper alleges further that the files of the wiretapped persons include not only transcripts of their phone calls but also information on their health condition and private life.

Galko responded on November 21 by claiming that only a few days previous to the allegations the Ministry of Defense filed a criminal complaint over suspicions that fraud had occurred while the government was concluding a contract for the mobile communication system MOKYS, which required Slovakia to pay several billions of Slovak crowns.

A couple of days after filing the complaint, Slovak newspaper editorial offices received anonymous information on the purchase of military trucks and military emergency cars. Then, Galko continued, “today two periodicals have published stories about alleged illegal wiretapping of journalists by the military counter-intelligence,” as quoted by SITA newswire.

The minister stressed that the military counter-intelligence is not performing wiretapping. Each tapping is performed with the consent of a judge and enacted by the police.

“That is the decisive thing for me,” said Galko, telling “all who think themselves above the law” that what he called political games will have no impact on him.

The following day Galko promised that he would resign if it turns out that the Ministry of Defense performed a single illegal wiretap.

“If the investigation shows that even a single one of these wiretappings was carried out without the consent of a judge, I will take personal responsibility and resign,” said Galko, as quoted by SITA.

On November 22, major media publications came out with headlines such as Sme’s “Galko wiretapped journalists” and Pravda’s “Galko must leave”. Galko responded by saying that on one hand he understood the emotion and outrage of journalists, but that “on the other hand if there is a suspicion of criminal behaviour I am personally convinced that there is no difference between a politician, or indeed a minister, and an employee, businessman, regular person or journalist”.

The parliamentary committees for the oversight of military intelligence and for parliamentary defense and security have met to deal with the alleged wiretapping case.

“I see it as quite a serious scandal for the Ministry of Defense, particularly their failure to handle the situation properly,” said Peter Žiga, head of the committee for oversight of military intelligence and a deputy for the opposition party Smer, as quoted by TASR newswire. “The minister either knows what his intelligence service is doing or he does not, and if he doesn’t then he should not be a minister.”

Prime Minister Radičová stated that it is crucial to thorughly investigate any suspicions that journalists have been wiretapped. She requested Galko to deliver detailed information on the use of information technologies for wiretapping at the session of the Committee for Coordinating Intelligence Services’ Operations and at the meeting of Slovakia’s Security Council, both scheduled for November 22.

Meanwhile, the daily Plus 1 deň and the news portal topky.sk reported that Gučík was monitored by the military intelligence service because of suspicions that his firm, Enter AD, had committed economic crimes at the Defence Ministry. Gučík, however, responded on November 22 by filing a criminal complaint over being wiretapped by VOS. He denied that he was involved in any deals with the ministry, as was suggested by the alleged wiretapping, adding that he is willing to undergo a lie detector test.

Media concerns

The head of the International Press Institute’s Slovak branch, Pavol Múdry, responded to the information published by Pravda and Nový Čas by saying that eavesdropping on journalists or their contacts is unacceptable in a democracy.

“Regardless of whether this affair is real or whether these are only intelligence games, it is necessary to thoroughly investigate because in a democratic society such proceedings are unacceptable,” Múdry said as quoted by SITA newswire.

According to Múdry, such phone tapping could endanger freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, which are considered two of the pillars of a functioning democracy. He said that it is now up to Minister Galko and the special parliamentary committee for the oversight of military intelligence to thoroughly investigate the case and name those involved.

Múdry has said that the IPI will closely monitor the development of the case, protect the journalists who are involved, and call for consequences for those responsible.

“In the case of a government which was able and willing to change the press code, which we had considered a threat to press freedom, such an affair is completely unexpected and unacceptable,” Múdry said.

The responses

Rastislav Káčer, former Slovak ambassador to the US, security expert, and president of the Slovak Atlantic Commission, said on November 21 that it will be very disappointing if the media’s reports turn out to be accurate.

“The state has its units such as intelligence services and police, which based on law can limit personal freedoms in order to prevent crime, prevent the operation of foreign intelligence and prevent the disintegration of the constitutional regime in Slovakia. We citizens accept this limitation on our freedoms only when it is unavoidable and clearly defined by the law,” Káčer said.

He argued that if a government abuses these powers then their action constitutes a serious violation that goes against the foundations of democracy, adding that he does not wish to evaluate the news reports and talks only hypothetically.

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