König: PM's media approach 'unfortunate'

ARNE König, chairman of the European Federation of Journalists, is surprised by the level of tension in relations between the Slovak government and the country's media, and says Prime Minister Robert Fico should understand he represents all parts of society.

Arne König, chair of the European Federation of Journalists.
photo: Sme - Pavol Funtál

ARNE König, chairman of the European Federation of Journalists, is surprised by the level of tension in relations between the Slovak government and the country's media, and says Prime Minister Robert Fico should understand he represents all parts of society.

The Swedish-born König was in Bratislava on April 25 for a conference on freedom of the press organized by the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): As a foreign journalist, are you surprised by the way journalists in Slovakia are treated or referred to in public by politicians?

Arne König: Yes, yes, yes. You normally don't see that kind of lashing out. It occasionally happens that a European-level politician attacks an individual journalist, but it looks to me that in Slovakia it is systematic, that all journalists are considered to be unwanted. That's very unfortunate, and I think it sends a signal from politicians to the public that journalists are not to be trusted. That is very dangerous, of course, because when a politician really has a message to get out, the question arises as to whether that message should be trusted, given that it is borne by those people whom the politician has already said are not to be trusted.

TSS: What's behind the prime minister's approach? Why would a political leader deliberately and repeatedly antagonize the press?

AK: It looks like it comes from a very problematic view of democracy. The right thing to do is to encourage many voices, and if you are deliberately avoiding some voices, then you are saying you don't need those voices, and that you don't need that sort of diversity in society. Coming from a politician, that's a very bad signal.

TSS: In Slovakia, unlike in some other transition countries, the political contest has not been a traditional one between right and left on the political spectrum, but between democratic and undemocratic forces. Is the role of journalism in such a situation different than in a mature democracy like Sweden?

AK: Journalists definitely have a tougher fight here because of the very problematic views of politicians as to how information is to be perceived. All centres of power, no matter how small, want to control their own information. But when you take an official position as a politician, you have to accept that you will be criticized from different sides. When journalists in this case face this very harsh attitude from politicians, they of course have a tougher job than my Swedish colleagues.

I should add that it happens to a certain extent in all countries. A politician in my country, for example, might try to avoid a specific investigative program, or you might have a journalist trying to get an answer from a politician for weeks with no result. But it's not the general pattern, it's the exception, and that's an important distinction.

TSS: What would you advise Prime Minister Robert Fico to do?

AK: I don't think people who have reached the position he has would be easy to convince just by having a talk with him. But I would argue that if he has accepted the position, he should understand that he represents all parts of society, not just his own political party. He is also a national symbol who should be accessible to all media.

TSS: Is there another side to this coin? Fico and others in the government have frequently complained that the media is out to get them, that journalists are unprofessional, or that certain media have an agenda beyond objective reporting. Is there an element of truth in what they are saying?

AK: If there isn't, the prime minister could create it with his current attitude. I think you have to accept that the act of questioning itself contains an inherently critical attitude, and the news format itself requires an element of conflict, given that we have such a short time or limited space in which to do our work. A question containing conflict and eliciting conflict in return is of course better for the dramatic forms that all media are now using. We might take a few steps back from that. Perhaps we could be more receptive to receiving information if there weren't so much conflict involved in the way we work.

TSS: So how should Fico protect himself from 'conflict driven' journalism? Do you think his idea of setting up a press council is a good idea?

AK: I think a press council is a very good idea as long as it is run by the press and the publishers and the journalists, and not by the state, the government or politicians. That's very important. A press council has been tried in many countries, and if you have a voluntary system, I think it can work.

TSS: In the current situation, access to government politicians is rather limited, and reporting is therefore weaker on stories concerning the government. Can journalists do anything themselves to cool the tensions and serve their readers better?

AK: They could try to set up an off-the-record meeting, but this is always a tricky job with politicians.

TSS: What are the long-term implications of such tense relations between the two sides?

AK: It's like a trench - the deeper you dig yourself in, the harder it is to get out of it. The longer this situation continues, the harder it will be to fix. As I understand it, Mr. Fico is a very decisive person and is rather young for his position. From that point of view there is a risk that there will be no rush to try to change it.

TSS: In a country like Slovakia, which has a relatively short experience of democratic journalism, do we see journalists making mistakes or guilty of faults that don't happen elsewhere?

AK: I think they make the same mistakes we see everywhere. For example, if you have a really good story that you are not 100 percent sure of, the chances today that it will be broken before it is thoroughly investigated are greater than in the past. I think you also have a problem with political stories, which in my country are difficult to sell. There is no political story that could beat a celebrity story. Political stories are harder to push through in some journalistic environments.

TSS: Should this trend towards more tabloid-style journalism be resisted, or is it harmless?

AK: It should be resisted, because otherwise the journalistic profession will lose its purpose. In Sweden, politicians have very low credibility ratings, but journalists have even lower credibility. This is such a stressful and important situation that if we don't do something about it, everything will be seen as entertainment in future, and those journalists who are not happy with the situation will not have any space to publish their stories.

There is a huge risk that we are heading for really bad journalism, for many reasons, due in part to financial demands, and to the fact we have new owners who are not traditional publishers, but industrialists. Another problem is the tempo at which we work - there is very little time to make a publication decision.

Also look at the competition - the internet. The Lewinsky scandal in the U.S. was the first occasion on which a paper had information, saw the story coming on the internet, and decided to release it in order to be first. In another case, a political leader in Sweden had an alcohol problem and urinated in public. The same thing again - it was published on the internet and forced into the media. The approach that you need to be first, even with unconfirmed information, will create great problems for us in the future. Not to mention the fact that the internet has a 24-hour deadline.

TSS: Noam Chomsky might suggest that these conditions, which reduce the credibility of news reporting, suit politicians and the wider business establishment, of which publishers are a part. Do you see any design in what is happening to the quality of journalism?

AK: I think so. My friend in the Swedish press agency has to do three versions of each story, then they have to do sound to sell to commercial radio stations, and finally they have to carry a video camera to take video clips. In the beginning they said it was too much, but they were forced into it. After a while some of them began to find it interesting and to enjoy the challenge. Then they were told by the owner that he couldn't afford all of these new activities, and that they would have to lower the quality. That's a very clear message from an employer. Other employers are also sending the message that quality is less important than whether they can sell the content.

TSS: But do media owners share the interests of politicians in reducing the quality of journalism?

AK: You know as well as I do that politicians go into interviews with the aim of not answering any questions but getting their message out. They try to talk in a way that they can't be cut off, and they try to avoid situations where they don't have control, so they prefer to be live. So there is a sense in which politicians want their stuff to get out there.

In terms of the media, on the other hand, we are seeing more and more the idea that the media is a business that has to produce results. The last quarter is what counts. That means you can't build for the future.

I think there are still a lot of good journalists, but for many people in the business now it is becoming a job where you are replaceable. And people in turn say, 'If I am replaceable, why don't I go into communications and make more money, work fewer hours, when as a journalist I don't have any respect, I am not paid well, I don't have a future, and I don't have the interesting job I longed for at the start of my career?'

TSS: Is it common for Swedish journalists, like those in Slovakia, to start leaving the profession around the age of 30 to become spokespeople or to work in PR or marketing?

AK: No, but there are different levels of identification with the work around the world. You have to give journalists opportunities to identify with their profession, as well as reasons to become a journalist, such as good pay and further education on the job. If we are constantly losing people to the communications sector and as spokespeople, the media will remain very weak.

TSS: The media in Slovakia is regularly given high marks for freedom by international media watchdogs, but journalists here often ask what meaning that freedom has when what they write rarely produces any change.

AK: I have heard that from many people in the former Soviet Union. Some people who are very engaged in their work told me that when they do an investigative story, they want the bad guy to end up in jail for 10 years. If nothing happens, they get very frustrated about it. In my view, that's something that we in Western countries have been living with for a long time. The impact of what you write is not always immediate. It is more long-term.

People here are engaged in a way that my colleagues in Sweden are not. They would not be personally offended if their story doesn't produce a result. Maybe it's because when they weren't able to write freely [during Communism], the weight of each word was much greater. Words really meant something, and publishing something that was against the government had severe results. They are expecting the same sort of reaction now, and it's not coming. Maybe that's what you have to accept in a democracy - stories take longer to have an impact.

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