17 December 2004


IPI worried by prohibitive compensation in civil libel suit against newspaper

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(IPI/IFEX) - The following is an IPI press release:

Vienna, 17 December 2004

IPI Worried by Prohibitive Compensation in Civil Libel Suit Against Slovak Newspaper

On 15 December, the Bratislava regional court ruled that the daily Sme must pay three million Slovak koruny (approx. 77,395 EUR) as compensation to Supreme Court Judge Harald Stiffel for asserting that the judge was "partially responsible" for a sentence handed down to a Catholic priest in a "staged political trial" during the Communist regime.

Stiffel had been a member of a Supreme Court panel which delivered a "binding legal view" in the case against the priest, Jozef Labuda. On the basis of the Supreme Court's view, Labuda was sentenced to six months in prison in 1981 by the regional court in Banska Bystrica, Central Slovakia, for holding a mass without state approval.

Stiffel told the Bratislava regional court that Sme's claim that it was a political trial was "absurd" and that, as a member of the Supreme Court, he did not condemn Labuda. IPI understands that there is no appeal against the verdict.

Commenting on the case, IPI Director Johann P. Fritz said, "The prohibitive size of the damages appears designed to punish rather than compensate. In this particular case, Sme has been made an example in order to warn other media organisations that they face possible financial ruin if they dare produce similar reports."

"My other concern is the failure of the Slovak judicial system to provide a route of appeal for Sme. Due to the size of the award and fears that it is disproportionate it would only be fair and reasonable to allow the newspaper to challenge the size of the award in court."

"Finally, I would remind the Slovak authorities that newspapers play an essential role in disseminating information and scrutinising the work of governments. Therefore, I think the government should create an independent inquiry to examine whether there is any need to change the laws on civil libel to ensure that they are in line with other countries within the European Union. I certainly think it is important to include an appeal procedure as well as more stringent rules on the amount of compensation that may be awarded."


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