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Daily ordered to apologise to judge

READERS could instantly tell that the April 26th edition of the Sme daily, one of Slovakia’s major newspapers, was different from any that had gone before. On that day, and again in the following two issues, the daily printed a court-ordered apology, addressed to a Slovak judge, in capital letters on its front page. The Slovak committee of the International Press Institute (IPI) called the court ruling, which required publication of the apology, a threat to the media’s performance of its basic functions of informing the public and acting as a check on state power.

READERS could instantly tell that the April 26th edition of the Sme daily, one of Slovakia’s major newspapers, was different from any that had gone before. On that day, and again in the following two issues, the daily printed a court-ordered apology, addressed to a Slovak judge, in capital letters on its front page. The Slovak committee of the International Press Institute (IPI) called the court ruling, which required publication of the apology, a threat to the media’s performance of its basic functions of informing the public and acting as a check on state power.

“The judges proved that they first of all care about themselves and only after that about justice,” wrote Matúš Kostolný, the editor-in-chief of Sme (whose publisher is also the majority owner of The Slovak Spectator), in a column published in the same issue, adding that the judges also proved that “they do not take freedom of speech into consideration and that in reality they would like to keep what the newspapers write under control”.

In September 2009, Sme reported on its cover page that Michal Truban, then chairman of the Special Court, had in 2008 hunted for free on the hunting grounds of a regional politician, Milan Kepeňa. Truban successfully sued the daily and, after the Banská Bystrica Regional Court had upheld the verdict, Sme was ordered to print the text of an apology to him three times, the daily reported on April 26.

“On September 21, 2009 we published on the cover page of the Sme daily an article entitled ‘[He] led the court and hunted for free’ and on page 3 of the Sme daily we ran a story headlined ‘[He] led the court and shot for free’ in which we, among others, stated that judge of the Specialised Criminal Court JUDr Michal Truban in 2008 had been hunting for free in the hunting area of Čebovská Bukovina and in this connection he forbade [that we] write about him and refused to answer questions about the hunting,” read the text of the apology, as printed by Sme on April 26. “By the published claims we misleadingly informed the public about the person of JUDr Michal Truban, by which we unlawfully interfered in his honour, human dignity, good name, reputation and his privacy. For this illicit interference we apologise to JUDr Michal Truban.”

According to the district and regional courts in Banská Bystrica, the daily erred because it reported that Truban had hunted for free and that he had accepted a gift. However, according to the plaintiff and the court, reciprocity was at issue. Members of the hunting association, in which Kepeňa was a member, in return received the opportunity to hunt pheasants at a pheasant hunting area of Truban’s father in which Truban had a share. The court reasoned that such an exchange is normal among hunters, but that Sme had presented it in an immoral light, the Sme daily reported. The regional court found that Truban did not accept a gift, and the judge said that it was his leisure-time activity, noting that the constitution guarantees freedom to gather for judges as well as other people, Sme wrote.

“The criticism of the private activities of the plaintiff does not enjoy a heightened level of protection because it was not criticism of the work of the judge that was in question,” the first instance court ruled, as quoted by Sme, which noted that the right to privacy and protection of an individual was in effect given precedence over freedom of expression.

The district court will now decide on Truban’s claim for €150,000 in damages, Sme reported.

The Bonanno case

Sme, however, is not the only media outlet in Slovakia having to deal with lawsuits initiated by senior judicial figures. In a lawsuit against the Nový Čas tabloid daily, several judges and a senior prosecutor who participated in a party for what they called the Judiciary Oscars Association at the Bonanno bar in Rajecké Teplice are seeking damages totalling €940,000 from the newspaper’s publisher, Ringier Axel Springer Slovakia. The judicial figures object to Nový Čas interpretation of images from the party, which appeared to link it to a dramatic event that took place two months earlier.

Back in late August 2010, Ľubomír Harman, a 48-year-old man wearing blue ear defenders and armed with an assault rifle, shot dead seven people before killing himself in Devínska Nová Ves. The Judiciary Oscars Association met two months after the shooting spree in October 2010, and in June 2011 Nový Čas published images from the party of retired judge Tibor Péchy sporting blue ear defenders and carrying an imitation assault rifle, plus video footage of the meeting. In a case filed this year, the judges and senior prosecutor are objecting to associations between the images from the Bonanno bar and the mass murderer, arguing that there was no mimicking of Harman. They also claim the photographs were modified and falsified.

Róbert Bános, a lawyer acting for Nový Čas, said that there was no illegal interference in the personal rights of the people attending the meeting in the Bonanno bar and so their requests for compensation for non-material damage should not be met, the SITA newswire reported on February 27.

One of the judges, Supreme Court Justice Štefan Michálik, who is seeking compensation of €100,000 from Nový Čas, alleges that articles about the meeting at the Bonanno bar could have been politically ordered. Michálik said that at the time the reports were published there was what he called a witch-hunt against judges and that the election of the general prosecutor was also taking place, SITA reported.

Press freedom concerns

The Slovak committee of the International Press Institute (IPI) has expressed deep concern over what it calls growing pressure by courts, judges and the judiciary in general on the freedom of press guaranteed by the constitution of Slovakia.

Lawsuits filed by judges and prosecutors in the Bonanno case and Truban’s case against Sme are direct threats to the media as representatives of the public in the performance of their basic function of informing the public and acting as a check on state power, said Pavol Múdry, the chairman of the board of IPI Slovakia, in an official statement.

“Both cases of attacks on the media evoke justified concerns that judges, prosecutors and the judiciary in general behave as though they are a class of untouchable people sheltered from criticism and ultimately beyond the reach of public control,” said Múdry. “Yet, even in the decisions the judiciary cannot stand above all and must accept the fact that it must be accountable to the public.”

According to IPI Slovensko, in the Bonanno case journalists are being accused of revealing inappropriate behaviour by judges and prosecutors who acted at odds with the code of judicial ethics.

Dunja Mijatović, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, expressed concern over members of the Slovak judiciary seeking high damages awards in lawsuits against the media.
“One of the indispensable roles of the media is to hold a mirror to society and inform people about matters of public interest. Public officials need to endure a higher threshold of criticism, including by members of the media,” Mijatović wrote on May 2 in a letter to Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák, according to the OSCE website.

“In the case of judge Truban, it is not only that the court did not respect the fact that the daily published true and factual information, which no one has denied, and that the daily now has to apologise, but by ordering the daily to publish the apology on its front page, the court directly interfered in the responsibility of the publishing house and the editor-in-chief for the content they publish,” Múdry said in a statement.

IPI Slovensko is calling on state bodies, including the Slovak Parliament, the Slovak Government, and the Ministry of Justice, as well as judges and prosecutors themselves, while maintaining respect for the independence of the judiciary, to create conditions for eliminating practices which limit freedom of speech and of the press.

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