When speaking English means breaking the law

A SINGLE on-air sentence spoken in English on a Slovak TV show might end up costing a local broadcaster dearly.

A SINGLE on-air sentence spoken in English on a Slovak TV show might end up costing a local broadcaster dearly.

The show in question – an edition of the TV debate Lampa (Lamp) hosted by Štefan Hríb, the editor-in-chief of the Týždeň weekly, and broadcast on the private TV channel JOJ Plus – did not deal with any heavyweight political or economic issues. Hríb had gathered various guests to talk about their most memorable moments from past years.

One of the guests was Andy Hillard, a British musician living in Bratislava. He spoke in Slovak, apart from one answer to a question which he did not understand and which Hríb therefore repeated in English.

“It makes sense to me how the truth of what I was trying to do for such a long time and it came together in this time. And I was lucky enough to meet and work with people that helped this
happen. So this is my favourite,” Hillard replied in English. His answer was not translated.

Based on Hillard’s three sentences in English, Slovakia’s Council for Broadcasting and Retransmission, also known as the licensing council, decided at its regular session on March 23 to take action against MAC TV, which holds the broadcasting licence covering TV JOJ.

“A failure to provide for use of the state language in line with the special regulations might have occurred,” the minutes from the council’s session reads.

According to the law on broadcasting and retransmission, broadcasters are duty-bound to ensure usage of the state language and languages of national minorities in line with the special regulations – in this case the State Language Act.

The initiative to launch an investigation came from inside the council.

“While monitoring the programme in question, Lampa, it appeared that one of its parts could have been in contradiction to the State Language Act,” Miloš Mistrík, the president of the licensing council told The Slovak Spectator. “It was the part where sentences in a foreign language were spoken without being translated by the host into Slovak, nor was the programme subtitled.”

According to Mistrík, in circumstances where the council discovers a failure by a broadcaster to observe the law, it has a duty to act.

“However, this action doesn’t mean that the council has already decided on the matter,” Mistrík stressed. “After the investigation, when all the necessary documents are gathered, the council will decide at one of its next sessions.”

More than half of such actions are closed as unjustified after the investigation period, he added.

Despite that, Hríb described the council’s decision to start the action as “ridiculous, but also tragic”.

“Slovakia is not a museum where people do not understand English. This state underestimates its own people,” he told The Slovak Spectator, commenting on the legal requirement that all broadcasting must be translated.

According to Hríb, the language confusion occurred in the on-air discussion due to the fact that it was improvised.

“We were doing an interview in Slovak, but Andy Hillard did not understand one question, so I translated it [into English] for him and he replied in English,” Hríb said, adding that he is not an interpreter.

“And I believe it is much better to have two sentences in English rather than having nothing at all,” he said.

Criticism was heaped on the council by the International Press Institute (IPI) Slovakia, which called on it to stop the action.

“This interpretation of the law is, according to the IPI, unreasonable, even comical for many, while it worsens the image of Slovakia as a free and tolerant country and makes a bogey out of the Slovak language,” the head of the IPI board in Slovakia Pavol Múdry told the SITA newswire.

The council stressed that it was only observing the law, which also controls the use of language in the public-service and private media without distinguishing between them. According to Mistrík, Slovakia and most European countries follow a different model to that of the USA, where the Federal Communications Commission distinguishes between network TV and cable TV.

“In Europe it is usual to apply the same standard to all forms of television (public-service and private),” Mistrík said. “The Slovak law on broadcasting and retransmission also doesn’t make a distinction, and therefore it is not possible to regulate the usage of language differently in public-service television compared to private television.”

The Culture Ministry, which drafted the applicable legislation, refused to comment on the matter.

“The Council for Broadcasting and Retransmission is in charge of overseeing this matter and the Culture Ministry doesn’t wish to influence its decisions by its opinions,” the ministry’s spokesperson Jozef Bednár told The Slovak Spectator.

However, several journalists and observers have already spoken out against the law, and the rigid rules it imposes on all media, including privately owned channels. “A language must be free,” Hríb said. “Only unfree people want to fetter it with laws.”

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