Court blocks journalist’s publication on ‘Gorilla’ corruption scandal amid cries of censorship
For the Slovak Spectator
A Slovak court’s decision to block publication of an unfinished book about alleged high-level political corruption written by investigative journalist Tom Nicholson has been described by critics as censorship.
A preliminary injunction issued in early February by the Bratislava 1 District Court ordered Nicholson’s publisher, Petit Press, to desist from publishing the book or any other documents based on the so-called Gorilla file, a document purporting to show high-level corruption between private businessmen and Slovak politicians.
The file is based on leaked information allegedly recorded by the country’s SIS intelligence service between 2005 and 2006. It points to collusion between high-ranking members of Mikoláš Dzurinda’s government and private companies including Penta, a Slovak-owned financial group.
The document is accessible on the Internet and has in recent weeks led to large street protests as the country gears up for general elections in March.
An official investigation into the file has been under way since January. It has now gone international after Slovak police sought the assistance of authorities abroad to probe international financial transactions associated with the case, Slovak Interior Minister Daniel Lipšic said.
In addition to banning the publication of his book about the scandal, the court also ordered Nicholson to submit his final manuscript as well as documents he used for research, the daily Sme reported.
The presiding judge, Branislav Král, said he based the verdict on two issues: the plaintiff’s right to personal protection and Nicholson’s right to free expression.
“It was necessary to judge very sensitively to which right I should attribute greater protection,” Král told Sme. “I claim that it is the right to protection [from defamation] of the individual.”
Prime Minister Iveta Radičová called the court’s decision a violation of free speech rights.
“[The book] is not Mein Kampf,” she said. “I strongly object to [the ruling], but I cannot do anything more lest I interfere with the independence of the courts.”
The court issued the injunction in response to a complaint submitted by Jaroslav Haščák, co-owner of the Penta financial group, whose name figures prominently in the Gorilla file. The file describes his conversations with senior officials from both the ruling coalition and the opposition in 2005 and 2006.
Petit Press Director Alexej Fulmek and the head of the International Press Institute’s Slovak branch, Pavol Múdry, both described the court’s decision as censorship.
Múdry described the move as “preventive censorship, since the book has not yet been published, and no one except the author knows what is in it.”
“This is how totalitarian regimes proceed,” Múdry continued. “Suspicions of large-scale corruption are in question, and public funds are involved. In such a case, public interest must be placed above the protection of the reputation of an individual, whoever that person is.”
Múdry added the ruling could set a chilling precedent if a higher court does not reverse it.
“The Slovak Constitution explicitly states that censorship is banned,” he argued. “If the courts adopt this argument in the way the Bratislava District Court has formulated it, then it will be impossible to write about corruption, and investigative journalism will be over in Slovakia.”
Critics also pointed to past controversial decisions made by the judge who issued the injunction, claiming it would only further mar the reputations of the parties involved in Gorilla.
Král, the judge in the case, is the same district court judge who last year ordered former Slovak President Michal Kováč to apologize to former Slovak intelligence head Ivan Lexa and pay him 3,319 euros in compensation for accusing him of the 1995 abduction of his son, Michal Kováč Jr.
All investigations into the abduction, and into suspicions Slovak intelligence was involved, were halted by blanket amnesties issued by acting President Vladimír Mečiar, Lexa’s political patron, in 1998.
Sme reported that Král had also ruled favorably in a previous case involving businesses controlled by Penta.
“They [Penta] are more likely to cause harm to themselves than to me by such a ruling,” said Nicholson, a Canadian-born investigative reporter who first came across the Gorilla files in 2009.
In response to the court’s order that he submit his manuscript, Nicholson said he was not certain it was still in his possession.
Fulmek of Petit Press, speaking in a televised interview with TV Sme, said his publishing house was prepared to comply with all aspects of the court injunction.
“We are people who respect the basic rules of the country and particular bodies, yet it will not prevent us from making comments about it,” he said.
“Our interpretation is that [the decision] is not so wide that it binds any of our 31 media outlets, which means that in terms of journalistic proceedings, we will continue to cover this issue as we have been covering it so far.”
Representatives of Penta, meanwhile, have refused to comment on the group’s next legal steps.
“The ban’s purpose is to stop illegal activities by those who are trying, via their status, to present this pamphlet as something true and legal,” Haščák’s attorneys from the firm Škubla & Partners said in a statement Feb. 8.
According to the attorneys, the document Nicholson’s book is reportedly based on was not acquired legally and thus cannot be disseminated.
“Any conclusions based on such a document violate the plaintiff’s rights,” they added.