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Journalist’s Attempted Hand-Shake Leads to Criminal Indictment

WASHINGTON – United States Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) voiced alarm today over the criminal charges brought this week against Slovak journalist Denisa Havrl’ová. She is reportedly being charged under article 156 of the Slovak penal code and faces up to one year in prison for “insulting” a public official.

In February, Havrl’ová was visiting Jarnovice, a village in eastern Slovakia. Upon meeting a police officer, she offered her hand. He refused to shake her hand and, instead, demanded a “certificate of hygiene.” She then asked if he had refused to shake her hand because she is Romani.

Havrl’ová subsequently filed a complaint with the Ministry of Interior regarding the police officer’s behavior. Although the complaint was dismissed, the Minister of Interior described the investigation as a “whitewash” and apologized to Havrl’ová. This week, charges were brought against Havrl’ová on the theory that when she questioned whether the police officer’s refusal to shake her hand was racially motivated, she “insulted” a public servant.

“It is always disturbing when a journalist faces criminal charges for his or her speech,” Co-Chairman Smith said. “It is even worse when the speech in question is the alleged ‘insult’ of a public official. The particular circumstances of this case illustrate why the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, joined by his UN and OAS counterparts, have so clearly condemned ‘insult’ laws as contrary to international free speech norms.” Smith has repeatedly raised concerns regarding the criminal defamation and insult laws which remain in Slovakia’s penal code.

In November 2001, the Slovak Parliament failed by one vote to repeal two of the articles in the Slovak penal code which allow criminal charges to be brought against individuals exercising their right of free speech.

“If merely asking whether a government official’s action was tainted by racism can result in criminal charges,” Smith observed, “the Slovak Government’s generally laudable efforts to improve respect for Romani human rights will be severely undermined.”

“One of the ironies of this case is that Slovakia’s record in the area of free speech is, overall, excellent,” Smith concluded. “But as long as these archaic criminal defamation and ‘insult’ laws remain on the books, it’s only a matter of time before someone finds a way to use them.”

“It’s a pity that one thin-skinned public official is using his taxpayers’ money to pursue his personal grudge. I hope this case will spur Slovak legislators to repeal those archaic laws before they wind up costing Slovakia even more money. Hard-working Slovak citizens deserve better.”

Last year, Slovakia lost a free speech case before the European Court of Human Rights stemming from a 1992 incident and was ordered to pay 565,000 Slovak crowns (approximately $12,000) to the plaintiff.

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