Freedom of the Press
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Press freedom in Slovakia is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected, and independent media outlets freely disseminate diverse views. However, defamation is a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment of up to eight years—the highest possible defamation penalty in the European Union (EU). Certain types of expression, such as denial of the Holocaust or Armenian genocide and the defamation of nationalities, are also subject to criminal prosecution.
Defamation suits brought by politicians, business elites, and members of the judiciary remain a concern, and many suits claim exorbitant damages. While Prime Minister Robert Fico—notorious for bringing libel suits during his previous term in office—has been less litigious in his current term, representatives of the judiciary and police have on numerous occasions turned to legal means to contain media criticism. In the so-called Bonanno case, eight current and former judges sued the publishers of the tabloid Nový Čas in 2013 over a 2011 article that included photos of the judges wearing blue ear protectors and sporting mock assault rifles at a party at Penzion Bonanno. The party took place a few months after seven people, among them Roma, were murdered by a gunman wearing blue ear protectors. By 2014, the plaintiffs had filed several lawsuits against the publisher of Nový Čas, the Switzerland-based Ringier Axel Springer, that together sought damages of €1.8 million ($2.3 million). In June, a district court ordered Nový Čas to publish an apology to Daniel Hudák, a Supreme Court justice and one of the plaintiffs, for violating Hudák’s personal integrity and for publishing his name and picture without his consent. At the end of the year, the court had yet to decide the sum of damages to be awarded to Hudák; Ringier Axel Springer has appealed the decision. The lawsuits have been criticized by domestic and international watchdogs, including both the U.S. mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the OSCE media freedom representative, Dunja Mijatović. In a separate case, in October, prosecutors dropped criminal libel charges against Dušan Karolyi of the Trend news magazine. The case was connected to a 2013 article about police misconduct in which Karolyi had disclosed the first name and last initial of an agent with Slovakia’s organized crime office (ÚBOK).
In January 2014, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) awarded a total of €30,000 ($40,000) to Ringier Axel Springer after finding that Slovak courts in two cases had failed to protect the right of Nový Čas to free expression. Both cases involved instances in which the tabloid had published individuals’ names—one article disclosed the identity of a local prosecutor’s son who was killed in a car accident, and the second identified a person accused of cheating on a televised game show. Slovak courts had ruled against Nový Čas in lawsuits connected to each article, but the ECHR found that the courts had failed to strike an appropriate balance between freedom of expression and the right to privacy.
The 2000 Act on Free Access to Information allows anyone to request information from state agencies, and noncompliant officials may be subject to fines. The government signaled intent in 2013 to revise the legislation, following statements by Fico that the act was being “misused by students and private interests.” However, a 2013 survey led by an adviser to Slovakia’s National Council speaker countered the notion that municipalities are overburdened by freedom of information requests; the survey showed that more than 30 percent of municipalities did not receive any requests in the period of 2010−2013, while 75 percent of those that did received no more than six requests. The survey also noted that numerous requests for information submitted by its organizers were unanswered. The law was not modified in 2014.
For the regulation of print media, the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists and the Periodical Publishers Association of Slovakia established the Press Council in 2001. However, the number of complaints handled by the Press Council has been very low in recent years, and it is unclear whether there is substantial public awareness of the body. Broadcast media are regulated by the Council for Broadcasting and Retransmission (RVR), whose nine members are elected by the parliament. The state reduced funding for the RVR from €1.19 million ($1.56 million) in 2013 to a projected €1.13 million ($1.51 million) in 2014, while doubling the amount the council was expected to collect in fees and fines from €170,000 ($226,000) in 2013 to a projected €340,000 ($450,000) in 2014. Media watchdogs have expressed concern that the changes could threaten broadcasting independence and lead to self-censorship by giving the RVR an incentive to issue fines.
Journalists occasionally experience interference while performing their jobs. A regulation that went into effect in April 2014 limits the number of journalists accredited to the parliament, bans them from taking pictures of deputies’ personal belongings, and restricts their movement inside the parliament building. Separately, in 2012, Jaroslav Haščák, co-owner of Penta—a private equity firm implicated in the so-called Gorilla case, a major corruption scandal—unsuccessfully sought court injunctions against several websites that had published the files at the center of the scandal, and against a book about the affair written by the Canadian-Slovakian investigative journalist Tom Nicholson. In a separate case, in 2013, police pressured Nicholson to reveal his sources in an investigation of connections between an adviser to Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák and the head of a criminal organization. In May 2014, unidentified perpetrators stole Nicholson’s car—which contained his computer and documents with sensitive information—while he was traveling in Poland. Nicholson has expressed concern that people who supplied him with information could be at risk following the incident. Physical attacks on journalists are rare, and no major incidents were reported in 2014.
Most Slovak media outlets, including all major print outlets, are privately owned, and the country’s media outlets disseminate diverse views. The main operators in the radio market are Rádio Expres, which is privately owned, and the public Slovak Radio. Even though television remains the main source of information in the country, Slovaks enjoy growing access to the internet, which the government does not restrict; approximately 80 percent of the population used the medium in 2014. Private as well as public outlets have faced increasing financial pressure in recent years. Broadcasting taxes were reinstated in 2013 to ensure the independence and financial stability of the public broadcaster, Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS); the government also reintroduced state contracts as a form of income for RTVS.
Lack of transparency in media ownership remains a concern, as does the inadequate enforcement of regulations on the cross-ownership of outlets. The print market has seen significant changes in the past few years as a result of increasing concentration of ownership following acquisitions by Penta, whose leadership was infamously implicated in corrupt behavior alongside former government officials in the Gorilla scandal. Numerous journalists left the leading daily Sme in October 2014 after Penta announced its intention to buy a 50 percent share in Petit Press, the publisher of Sme and of Slovakia’s Hungarian- and English-language newspapers. Penta backtracked at the last minute and acquired a 45 percent share in the publisher, but the purchase nevertheless left press freedom advocates anxious about ownership concentration and potential links between media owners and government officials. Penta also purchased the publishers 7 Plus and Trend Holding in September. Slovakia’s leading financial group, J&T, has indirect links to Pravda, a prominent daily, and owns the second-largest commercial broadcaster, TV Joj. Both outlets receive substantial advertising from companies linked to J&T.