Free press not served by code

Freedom of the press is like a precious but fragile object that will break if not handled carefully. Techniques for making journalists write stories that do not irritate those in power have developed far beyond jailing reporters or declaring them "enemies of the nation".

Freedom of the press is like a precious but fragile object that will break if not handled carefully. Techniques for making journalists write stories that do not irritate those in power have developed far beyond jailing reporters or declaring them "enemies of the nation". Understandably, journalists go on the alert whenever governments produce a new press code, increase VAT on print products or allow politicians to demand millions from publishers to heal their wounded egos.

Prime Minister Robert Fico's culture minister recently drafted a new press code, which should finally replace Slovakia's media legislation from 1966. The old communist-style code has been through dozens of revisions and some say it looks like a face after several unsuccessful plastic surgery operations.

The revision comes shortly after Fico made some unflattering statements about Slovak journalists, calling them uneducated, biased and rude. Fico has never been a media darling and journalists have never been at the top of his love list.

While there is nothing wrong with a bit of dynamic tension between government officials and the press, Fico often takes the media too personally, seeing conspiracy against his government behind every story.

It took the prime minister one year to grant a newspaper a longer and somewhat more substantial interview. He decided that it was Nový Čas, the country's most popular tabloid daily, that deserved his time and trust. Fico told the reporter that he thought the paper, which true to the nature of the tabloid press has been digging into the private lives of self-declared celebrities, was in fact the most objective daily in Slovakia. One can only wonder about the depth of bitterness that Fico must have towards the press if he had the need to make such statements.

And yes, there are problems in Slovakia's media gardens, but those aren't really the ones that bother Fico the most. The media around the world have been under strong economic pressure, with publishers trying to keep their expenses low and often hiring journalists with limited experience willing to do the job for half the cost of a media veteran.

Economic pressures potentially induce self-censorship, especially when a critical investigative story about a big corporation or state-run company could result in losing advertisers at a time when the print press already faces circulation drops and publishers have not yet come up with a good advertising model for the newspapers' online versions.

And yes, editors often have a hard time finding well-trained journalists capable of writing in-depth investigative stories. But all this has nothing to do with how kind or unkind journalists are to Robert Fico's government. Turning a deaf ear to his populist statements and turning a blind eye to sponsors of political parties that made their fortune in rather suspicious ways would only further corrode the quality of journalism.

The most publicised paragraph of the new press code has been the provision about the right to have a published response to a story that insults an individual or harms the credibility of an institution. The publisher is obliged to publish a response in a way the concerned person wrote it without attaching any explanatory text. Many journalists say the provision could be easily abused.

Yet the new code lacks the definition of censorship or efficient protection from penalties for publishing objective information, according to the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists.

The draft could have been much worse from a government that includes Vladimír Mečiar, who the Committee to Protect Journalists included in their 1996 list of the "10 worst enemies of the press." No journalist genuinely believes in the metamorphosis of Mečiar, who once physically threatened a journalist who inquired about his financial affairs. His regime was believed to use the state intelligence service to tap phone calls of journalists, control public media and restrict access to government-related information.

While it is unlikely that Mečiar or his ruling coalition partners would return to these practices, the way some government officials interpret the role of the media clearly poses tough challenges for journalists in Slovakia.

By Beata Balogová

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