Cabinet passes resolution on media

PRIME Minister Robert Fico called a special meeting of cabinet to deal with what he called unethical behaviour on the part of the media.
Several ministers told journalists shortly before the September 4 meeting that they did not have the slightest idea what they were supposed to discuss or why they had been summoned.

PRIME Minister Robert Fico called a special meeting of cabinet to deal with what he called unethical behaviour on the part of the media.

Several ministers told journalists shortly before the September 4 meeting that they did not have the slightest idea what they were supposed to discuss or why they had been summoned. But they unanimously approved the draft resolution created by Fico.

It read: "The Government of the Slovak Republic discussed and approved the stance of the Slovak Government on suspected unethical and illegal practices of some print and electronic media."

In parliament, Fico explained that the government was concerned that some journalists take bribes from public relations agencies.

He added that he did not understand why the Press Council of the Slovak Republic and the Council for Broadcasting and Re-transmission have not yet reacted to a trip for journalists to the Austrian Alps that was organised by a private company. One month ago, Fico claimed that private pension fund management companies bribed some economic journalists with this trip to the Alps.

Fico called on the media councils to act.

"They must take a stand on incidents that suggest there was a serious violation of the ethical principles of journalism, in cases where unjustified financial and non-financial perks were given to journalists by private companies that work in fields that are under the jurisdiction of the ministry," he said in parliament.

Fico also told parliament a photographer trespassed on the property of Labour, Social Affairs and Family Minister Viera Tomanová on August 21 and August 29.

"On these days, an anonymous photographer trespassed in the fenced-off yard of Minister Tomanová, while at least on August 21, 2007, her watchdog was also drugged," he said.

He also challenged General Prosecutor Dobroslav Trnka to act on these claims.

Former prime minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, currently the chair of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union opposition party (SDKÚ), said Fico was attacking the media to try to divert attention from other, more important issues.

The same day as the meeting, the opposition tried to have Tomanová removed from office for her role in a Sk2-million (€59,200) ministry grant to her former employer, the Privilégium social services company, which owed money to the social security provider Sociálna Poisťovňa.

"If you are going to start censorship, I recommend that you would need to expand it as much as possible, even to the foreign media," Dzurinda said. "We do not care about your paranoid view of the media world. We do care about why you have spread alarmist news that threatens people who are saving for their pensions, and about whether you said these things out of mere ignorance."

Dzurinda was referring to statements Fico made on August 7, when he said people's pension savings in the second capitalization pillar were threatened.

According to the former justice minister Daniel Lipšic of the Christian Democratic Movement party (KDH), Fico's cabinet is increasingly resembling a totalitarian regime with its actions.

"Even communist Belarus did not have to be ashamed of such a governmental resolution," he said.

"I will not make policies just so that Washington or Brussels praise me," Fico replied.

Move typical of post-communist governments

The next day, Trnka told journalists the Prosecutor's Office will only address whether the crime of trespassing and violating the minister's privacy occurred, he said.

"I shall investigate who is the offender, and my actions will only be directed at clarifying these matters," he said. "The Prosecutor's Office will not evaluate the media or the stance towards the media."

He said there will probably not be any other special government meetings called to discuss the state of the media, and that such a cabinet meeting was out of the ordinary.

"All the media also contributed a bit to this unusual procedure with what happened in connection with the labour minister," he said, adding that he considered the meeting a political decision.

When asked by The Slovak Spectator what wrongs the media committed, Trnka answered: "There is a lot of sensation around Mrs. Tomanová. I do not dare to claim that it contributed to criminal activity that caused damage to her, but I think you write enough about Mrs. Tomanová."

According to Jiří Pehe, a political analyst and director of the New York University in Prague, it is very uncommon for a government of any democratic country to approve resolutions about the media.

"In democratic countries, the media are free," Pehe, a chief political advisor to former Czech president Václav Havel, told The Slovak Spectator. "Private media in particular can work in the way they find appropriate, as long as they do not break the basic laws of their country. And that definitely did not happen in Slovakia."

Moreover, every democratic society has the appropriate bodies and mechanisms for dealing with broken laws, such as the police and the courts, he said.

"In this case, the Slovak government is confusing its role," he said. "By interfering in the jurisdiction of the police and courts, it weakens their position. And thus it actually weakens the whole democratic system."

He added that current politicians of former Soviet satellite states - such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland - tend to have a constant, urgent need to monitor and interfere with the media.

"This fits in with the wider frame of all of post-communist Europe, where politicians have so far not understood that to fight with the media on a governmental level is completely counter-productive," he said. "And the bottom line is, it's also un-democratic."

Pehe said these governments have been exhausted by the tough discipline they needed to display during the process of acceding to the European Union. Now there are a number of politicians in these countries who assume that as EU members, they do not have to observe some rules as strictly as they did during the accession process.

"Candidate status was, in a way, a much better instrument for the European institutions to enforce civilised, democratic behaviour in the candidate countries than member status, when politicians who think populism will take them the furthest came to power," Pehe said.

Fico has attacked media repeatedly since he came to office. For example, on April 22 in Veľký Krtíš, he said, "Media have become a political opposition of this government, and citizens do not have unbiased information about our actions."

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