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Will a new press code replace outdated law?

THE CULTURE Ministry's proposed overhaul of the country's 40-year-old press code, submitted for interdepartmental review at the end of July, is drawing fire from critics who claim it doesn't go far enough to protect media rights.

THE CULTURE Ministry's proposed overhaul of the country's 40-year-old press code, submitted for interdepartmental review at the end of July, is drawing fire from critics who claim it doesn't go far enough to protect media rights.

None of the post-communist governments have gathered either the political will or the support for creating a new press code to replace the legislation that has been in effect since 1966. There have been minor attempts, like six revisions to the act since 1990, but none of these have made fundamental changes to the legislation.

As opposed to the old legislation, the draft press code prepared by the Culture Ministry no longer talks about the mass information media. Instead it refers to the periodical press and periodical internet publishing.

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. According to the draft, the publisher is obliged to publish a response in a way the concerned person wrote it without attaching any explanatory text.

The ministry said the draft is more demanding in terms of a professional approach to journalism.

"Though there will be much polemics around the draft, this is the first fair attempt to create a legal framework that is more just and more balanced towards both - the publishers and journalists, but also the citizens and institutions," Ivan Sečík, deputy culture minister, told the SITA newswire.

"Considering the lack of democratic traditions in Slovakia, the media has become a very strong political phenomenon, often overstepping the boundaries of its social mission and principles of journalist ethics," Sečík said.

The Slovak Syndicate of Journalists (SSN) said the draft legislation only refers to parts of European legislation that set out duties for the media, publishers and journalists. What's missing are references to international documents that define the duties for state bodies to create favourable conditions for the media to work, and to documents that stress the importance, mission and roles of the media in society.

"The draft is quite unbalanced," SSN head Zuzana Krútka told The Slovak Spectator. "Provisions about the right to have a published response take up too much space in the legislation."

The SSN will push to have the legislation include a definition of censorship that is based on a report by Article 19, an international anti-censorship organisation based in London, Krútka said.

"Certainly the constitution bans censorship, but nowhere is it defined what censorship actually is," Krútka said. "It is not just the violation of the media's right to free investigation and dissemination of information by the political power, but also any form of violation of this right by publishers or media managers."

The syndicate would like the new code to give editorial offices the option of creating their own ethical charters. Each editorial office would then make their code accessible to the public, Krútka told The Slovak Spectator.

The draft also lacks the right to justifiable mistake, Krútka said: "Meaning that when a journalist quotes a trustworthy source, it should be the source who bears responsibility for any inaccuracies and not the journalist. Trustworthy sources include press agencies and members of the cabinet."

Journalists should be allowed to publish information from official sittings of government institutions and sessions of both the national and local parliaments, she said. While the ministry argues that all of that information is already publicly accessible, the syndicate wants to have the right defined in law.

Krútka said the SSN is glad the draft includes protection for information sources, which was "accidentally" dropped from the law when it was revised in 1990. However, the group warns that it is also necessary to secure this right for journalists working in the electronic media.

Krútka said she would welcome a clause in the draft that would protect journalists from covering a topic that is at odds with his or her conscience.

Culture Ministry spokesman Jozef Bednár told The Slovak Spectator that "the ministry has been carefully analysing and evaluating all the comments."

"Only the final version of the draft press code that we will submit to the cabinet session will answer all these questions," Bednár said.

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