Slovakia Owes Newspaper for Human Rights Issues

     (CN) - A Slovakian newspaper scored a pair of victories Tuesday when the EU's human rights court held that two libel judgments violated the paper's freedom of expression.
     Bratislava-based publisher Ringier Slovakia - parent company of the widely read tabloid Novy Cas - sued the Slovakian government before the European Court of Human Rights after national courts found the paper had libeled individuals in two separate cases.
     In the first case, a local prosecutor identified in court documents only as "C" claimed that a Novy Cas writer reported that C had intentionally delayed a bail hearing for the man who had accidentally killed C's son.
     The lower court focused its ruling not on the reporter's inferences, however, but rather on the fact that Novy Cas had released names of both the victim and his prosecutor-father - an invasion of privacy that warranted both a published apology and $3,500 in damages.
     A Slovakian appellate court upheld the libel verdict in 2007 but overturned the monetary damages, finding the apology sufficient. Novy Cas fared no better in the highest national court, which threw the paper's appeal out entirely.
     The second case against Novy Cas involved its extensive coverage into allegations of cheating on Slovakia's version of "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire," lodged against a contestant who had accused the show's producers of rigging the game and depriving him of the $68,000 grand prize.
     After the contestant's attempt to settle with Novy Cas for nearly $36,000 failed, he sued the publisher. A district court found that the paper's insertion of the disclaimer words "seemingly," "perhaps" and "suspicion" did not free it from its obligation to publish the truth, and awarded the contestant both an apology and $1,974.
     While an appellate court credited the Novy Cas argument that the contestant had become a celebrity of sorts with little right to privacy, it also found the paper's reporting libeled him by leaving readers with no other conclusion than that he had cheated.
     The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights noted Tuesday that, in both cases, the Slovakian courts failed to thoroughly examine all the issues through the lens of free expression and freedom of the press.
     In C's case the Slovakian courts focused on the tragic loss of the son without having "taken full judicial notice of the context and overall content of the impugned article," according to the ruling.
     Aside from the circumstances of the accident, the context and content covers an "arguably more important[]" issue: "the circumstances of the ensuing investigation and detention of" the man who caused the accident, the ruling continues.
     "The court notes specifically that the publisher's detailed factual and legal argumentation was summarily dismissed by the Constitutional Court in its decision of Sept. 18, 2008 on the ground that a general court could not be held liable for a violation of fundamental rights and freedoms of a substantive nature unless there had been a violation of procedural rules and by the Supreme Court in its decision of Feb. 24, 2009 on the ground that the applicant company's right to have the contested rulings properly reasoned was superseded by the general interest in legal certainty," the eight-judge panel added. "No attention appears to have been given by the domestic courts to the presence or absence of good faith on the part of the publisher, the aim pursued by it in publishing the article or the public interest at stake in correlation with the status of B. and C. and the necessity of disclosing their identity."
     The oversight and failure by the national courts to extend this legal protection to Novy Cas constituted a human rights violation, according to the ruling.
     In the other case, the human rights court used the publisher's previous visits to the court as precedent for what journalistic freedom entails. It noted that the right to free expression also both innocuous news and news that shocks and offends readers - including "exaggeration or even provocation" - provided the press fulfils its Human Rights Convention obligations as well.
     "The court considers that it was crucial that the domestic courts make a careful assessment of the presence and level of public interest in the publishing of the impugned information in the present case, as well as strike a balance between any such public interest and the individual interests of those concerned, since as a matter of principle domestic courts are better equipped to establish the facts relevant to the ensuing legal analysis," the judges wrote. "This also applies to the issue of the bona fides of the publisher and other aspects of the case that are necessary for establishing whether it has acted in accordance with the 'duties and responsibilities' inherent in the convention."
     They added: "Although Novy Cas argued that the articles related to a matter of legitimate public interest, no evidence appears to have been taken or assessed, and no specific conclusions appear to have been drawn by the domestic courts in respect of that argument; neither does any judicial attention appear to have been given to the presence or absence of good faith on the part of the applicant company, the aim pursued by it in publishing the articles, or any other criteria relevant to the assessment of the applicant company's compliance with its 'duties and responsibilities.'"
     Slovakia will pay a combined $40,524 in damages to Ringier Slovakia for the human rights violations, the court concluded.