Since taking office, many Slovak politicians have criticized the media, calling it biased. Sweeping new laws curtailing press freedom may give them the upper hand
Since his victory in the parliamentary elections in Slovakia two years ago, Prime Minister Robert Fico has not participated in a single debate with a political opponent, not even on one of the talk shows where a couple of politicians can usually be found on any weekend. Fico says that he does not debate political opponents because his only real opposition is the media.
If Fico spent last weekend partying, he had good reason: On 25 April, President Ivan Gasparovic signed the law specially crafted by Fico's government to leash the print media.
Since taking office, the prime minister and other members of the government—a coalition of left-of-center and nationalist parties headed by his Smer Party—have consistently criticized, as one government press release put it, "the increasing number of false, biased and misleading statements that are published in several Slovak media outlets and are aimed against the current government of the Slovak Republic." Fico typically attacks the press en masse, but seems to be particularly fond of leveling such charges at two of the biggest daily papers (Sme and Pravda) and TV Joj. Under his premiership various branches of the government have issued at least 20 press releases concerning allegedly false or misleading press reports. What unifies all these statements is the conviction that the media are instinctively biased against the Fico government.
Fico even labeled the attitude of the Slovak media toward the government as "the biggest problem of Slovak politics." What has happened in past weeks is the culmination of his strategy to tackle his biggest problem by political means.
Throughout the past year, Culture Minister Marek Madaric worked on drafting a new law on the print media to replace one in effect, with minor amendments, since 1966. All year, Madaric strove to give the impression that the new law was completely unrelated to the government's exceptionally antagonistic attitude toward the printed press and all media. The new law was not meant to curb journalists but to extend the public's right to information, he said.
Madaric's soothing words on the effect and message of the bill couldn't have contrasted more sharply with those of the prime minister.
"We shall insist on a strict press law because what some media outlets dare in regard to the government is completely unacceptable," Fico said during one press conference.
The bill the government proposed earlier this spring certainly conformed to this proclamation. Two provisions in particular evoked heated responses from numerous domestic critics (journalists, publishers and opposition politicians among them), international media watchdogs, and Miklos Haraszti, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's representative on media freedom. One provision gave the Culture Ministry authority to penalize editors for publishing articles that promote certain kinds of hate—the bill specified 16 different kinds in all.
The second established a sweeping "right of reply" by individuals to articles published in newspapers or magazines.
The OSCE media representative came to the conclusion that the government's bill contained provisions that "seriously restrict editorial autonomy" because the right of reply of the Slovak kind "would grant politicians limitless access to publicity."
Even though this assessment came from an official with a mandate from the OSCE member states—including Slovakia—Madaric dismissed it as an attitude of merely one of the organization's representatives, and not even the most important one. The government unanimously rejected Haraszti's request that it retract and rewrite the bill.
As the bill worked its way through parliament, coalition deputies did take into consideration some of the objections raised by the OSCE and other international organizations. They abandoned the paragraph, for instance, that gave the Culture Ministry authority to define and punish the promotion of hate in print. Nonetheless, Madaric, Fico and many coalition parliamentarians were staunch in their defense of what they perceived the main attribute of the bill: the right of reply.
TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES
In most countries where such a provision is in effect, it concerns the right of reply to articles containing inaccurate or misleading statements of fact that harm the integrity, dignity or privacy of the individual concerned. The Slovak bill defines this right much more broadly: as a right to reply to any statement of fact that affects one's integrity, dignity or privacy. From which it follows that the law gives concerned persons—not excluding public officials—the right to respond at the same length and prominence as the original article, even when the statements published in the article are true.
The OSCE's Haraszti pointed out to the government that such a "right" would hand politicians access to the press over the heads of editors. His warning that the Slovak bill, even after the modifications, did not respect the basic principle of editorial independence was rebuffed by the prime minister as the opinion of a "third-class official of the OSCE." The coalition majority passed, and the president duly signed, the bill including the Slovak version of the right of reply.
The new law will affect only the printed press. However, the government is liberal in its scorn for all media, and the last few weeks have seen it push through significant changes in public television. Back in January, the three coalition party leaders agreed on a slate of new members of Slovak Television's governing body. After the meeting the prime minister publicly declared the coalition parties' concern to have people on the body "who will represent our opinions." When the governing body met a few days ago to elect the station's new president, the winner received the votes of 10 out of the 15 members—the same 10 who had been nominated by this government.
Media analysts fully expect the same thing to happen by summer at Slovak public radio.
The new press law will take effect in June. Whether it will or will not have the desired "regulatory" effect on the press will be determined by the extent to which editors and publishers resist the politically enforced right of reply and also by the first court verdicts in the lawsuits that are very likely to ensue. We may be about to see Slovak newspapers and magazines thrust back to the era of Vladimir Meciar's premiership, when the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists ranked him 10th among the worst enemies of the press worldwide.
Just as then, this year Slovak newspapers again published editions with front pages blank but for a statement of protest against the press law. The previous attempt by a Slovak leader—Meciar—to muzzle the press by political means contributed to his ouster from power in 1998. Running roughshod over parliamentary procedure, ignoring the claims of minorities, harnessing the media as a propaganda machine and allegedly using the secret services against his political opponents, Meciar blackened his country's name in its first years of independence, but retained a sufficiently large power base to shepherd his party back into government under Fico.
Now, a second such attempt has arrived. How long we will have to wait before we know whether it succeeds?