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ECHR Dodges Ruling in Connection to Discriminatory Slovakian Language Law

Hungary Today 2021.06.18.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has dismissed the case of a Hungarian-language TV report aired in Slovakia nearly a decade ago, on formal grounds. As a result, the Slovakian language law that negatively affects Hungarian minorities living in Slovakia will remain unchanged, reported Hungarian daily in Slovakia, Új Szó.

The decision comes after Slovakia’s media regulator (RVR) imposed a EUR 165 fine for the operator of Párkány’s (Štúrovo) local television station in 2013 for previously airing a report on a tragic car accident in which two witnesses talk about the incident in Hungarian without providing Slovakian subtitles. Although around 70% of the small town’s population is ethnic Hungarian, according to the language law of Slovakia, all regional television stations, including private companies, are only allowed to either broadcast in Slovakian, or if using other languages, they must subtitle the broadcast or repeat it in Slovakian.

Gyula Pereszlényi, the head of the company operating the TV station, eventually turned to the Slovakian Supreme Court, claiming that the decision violated his right to freedom of expression and discriminated against him on both ethnic and linguistic grounds. The Supreme Court, however, upheld the regulator’s sentence. The case was then brought before the Constitutional Court, but was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

Following this, Pereszlényi appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, arguing, among other things, that the law regulating the use of Slovakia’s official language restricts broadcasting freedom, and thereby his right to freedom of expression.

Using Language Laws to Create Second-Class Citizens
Using Language Laws to Create Second-Class Citizens

"By establishing a single language as 'official', the majority population asserts its domination over national minorities. It creates a sort of second-class citizenship for them."Continue reading

In his appeal, Pereszlényi emphasized that the issue holds great importance for the whole minority press- if the majority of the population in a given area is Hungarian, regional stations can still broadcast Slovakian-language programs without having to provide Hungarian subtitles, but this is not the case for Hungarian-language programs. This leads to a number of problems: it renders broadcasting live and sports programs impossible, and it also entails extra fees, as translation costs money.

After six long years, the ECHR eventually decided to reject the appeal on formal grounds, due to the case arriving too late. According to Strasbourg’s ruling, since the Slovakian Constitutional Court had no jurisdiction in the case, it should have been submitted to the ECHR immediately after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The justification is rather unusual because such a dismissal on formal grounds is typically concluded not after six years, but after one year at most.

János Fiala-Butora, the plaintiff’s lawyer, told Új Szó that the decision made in Strasbourg was a “cop out.” According to the lawyer, ECHR used a trumped-up procedural rule to dodge making a substantive decision.

Fiala also pointed out that one can only turn to the ECHR once every other domestic option has been exhausted, which is why they wanted to wait for the Constitutional Court’s ruling before turning to Strasbourg.

Featured photo illustration via Pixabay