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IPI wary of libel lawsuits

DESPITE 25 years since the fall of the communist regime Slovak media still face threats particularly the threat of debilitating libel lawsuits to intimidate publishers, according to an expert discussion held on November 25.

DESPITE 25 years since the fall of the communist regime Slovak media still face threats particularly the threat of debilitating libel lawsuits to intimidate publishers, according to an expert discussion held on November 25.

“Recently there has been an increasing number of criminal complaints and charges against journalists and media,” Pavol Múdry of International Press Institute (IPI) said in his opening speech, adding that excessive fines and prison sentences in Slovak legislation for libel are “relics of the past”.

Discussion under the title “Media Freedom After 25 Years: We Need to Eliminate Legislative Obstacles” was held by IPI and the Public Affairs Institute (IVO) and supported by Embassies of the United States, Canada and UK together with Bratislava municipal office.

US Ambassador to Slovakia Theodore Sedgwick, Principal Solicitor at BBC Rosalind McInnes, Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Director Andrei Richter, IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi, member of the Judicial Council Jozef Vozár and Miroslav Kollár of IVO, were among the speakers.

Big payouts

One of the Slovak journalists who experienced such lawsuit is Arpád Soltész who had to pay Sk1 million (over €33,000) for quoting testimony of police officer in a story about Vladimír Bachleda, a missing businessman and head of the district office in Poprad.

In May 2001 Soltész obtained a declaration written by a former police officer containing a number of statements which implied that a practising lawyer and an entrepreneur had been involved in Bachleda’s disappearance. In his article Soltész stated that the newspaper was in possession of the statement and outlined what it said about the involvement of the lawyer, whom the Hospodárske Noviny daily identified as Pavol Ovšonka.

Ovšonka then sued Soltész for libel demanding Sk5 million (almost €166,000) and won the lawsuit, with the first-instance court ordering Soltész to pay Sk1 million to the lawyer. The respective regional court then lowered the sum to Sk100,000 (over €3,300) with court fees of Sk400,000 (over €13,000), which Soltész paid, according to the Omediach.com media news portal.

“In that moment, if I’d had to pay Sk5 million or just Sk1 million it would have been bankrupting,” Soltész said during the discussion, “it would result in distraint on every salary I would ever get.”

Soltész appealed the decision, but this was dismissed by the Slovak Constitutional Court in June 2008. Then Soltész approached the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg and won the case, receiving compensations worth more than €20,000 for damages in October 2013.
Soltész said that lawsuit was carried against him as threat since the plaintiff was a wealthy person who did not need the money.

“It was the way to stop me,” Soltész said, “or at least to discourage any publisher from publishing any further information related to this case.”

Historical parallels

Vozár, who is a specialist in media law, admitted that there were several cases when media intentionally published stories to harm people. However, “the mental setup of the plaintiffs in this area is still somewhere in the era of socialism in Slovakia,” he said.

As an example Vozár used the case of Rudolf Dobiáš, who in 1953 as a young student distributed cartoon of Stalin and Klement Gottwald depicting them as boiling in hell and was sentenced to 18 years in prison by the communist courts. Half a century later in 2009, Prime Minister Robert Fico sued the Sme daily for publishing a cartoon featuring a man being told by his physician that since his x-ray shows he has no spine his cervical spine problems are only “phantom pains”. Fico argued that the author, Martin Šútovec, who draws under the name Shooty, was making fun of his serious medical condition.

According to Kollár, IVO has been pointing at this situation for years since many politicians and judges have created a business from acquiring libel payouts.

“A part of the political elite and in particular the judicial elite has essentially made a business of the current legislation that makes prosecution of the media possible,” said Kollár, as quoted by the SITA newswire. “The level of compensation awarded in Slovakia goes far beyond what media celebrities are getting in traditional European democracies. Indeed, today this has become a tool to raise pressure against independent media.”

It brings self-censorship into the media and efforts to avoid litigation, which partially also caused the disappearance of investigative journalism from Slovak media, he said.

Launching lawsuits

Sedgwick, who was previously a journalist, pointed out that the law in the United States makes it easy for the media to criticise public officials without legal consequences. These rights are sacred to the country as journalists are considered to be the watchdogs of democracy, the ambassador said, SITA reported.

According to Sedgwick several media trials in Slovakia are problematic. He criticised, for example, that some disputes with the media are initiated by judges themselves, according to SITA.

In the last five years fewer politicians have sued media, but the number of judges and businesspeople suing them has increased. There is still a real chance that even obviously inappropriate accusations against journalists will succeed at Slovak courts due to the country’s legislation and its interpretation, according to Múdry.

On the other hand, there have been several positive decisions by regional courts and Constitutional Court in favour of media, he said.

“It’s a good trend, but the question is whether this trend is just a sign [of change] or if this is permanent,” Múdry told The Slovak Spectator.

Solving the problem

At the beginning of the conference Múdry pointed out that despite the seriousness of the issue public officials remain silent, even as IPI has been trying to point on it for several years, arguing that libel should not be part of the criminal code.

Furthermore, IVO in its study of media libel lawsuits from 2011 says that when determining the amount of damage awarded Slovak courts should not prefer politicians, judges and public officials to common citizens. Compensation awarded by courts for damage to one’s reputation cannot be in noticeable disproportion to compensations awarded for serious injuries, bodily harm or death.

Justice Ministry spokeswoman Alexandra Donevová stated that the ministry does not plan to change legislation, particularly the Criminal Act imposing imprisonment up to eight years for libel.

“We aren’t denying that application of this regulation in praxis could be in some cases problematic,” Donevová said, as quoted by the public-service Slovak Radio, “but the legislation alone is not problematic and has its place in the Criminal Act.”

Part of the problem is that the public does not support the media on this issue and even the media is not proactive enough. They point out the problem only after such cases happen, Múdry said.

“It’s like Slovak media are not interested in their own problems or they don’t look to the future,” Múdry said, “but they are interested in it only when they experience it; then they shout and call for help but they are rather not interested in opening the debate about such things.”

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