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EDITORIAL

Mass Media Law: More sound, less fury

If any further proof is required that Slovak politicians have very strange ideas about freedom of the press, it is to be found in the Mass Media Law amendment that is in May to go before parliament for a third and final reading.
Paragraph 7, section 2 of the law, labeled 'The Conscience Clause', sets impossible conditions for journalists. It requires that any article published "may be published only with the permission of the author... the author in this instance includes the person with whom the journalist did his interview, as long as his comments are reported as direct speech".
In other words, you won't be able to publish any article in which the source you cite doesn't give (written? verbal?) approval that his or her comments be used.

If any further proof is required that Slovak politicians have very strange ideas about freedom of the press, it is to be found in the Mass Media Law amendment that is in May to go before parliament for a third and final reading.

Paragraph 7, section 2 of the law, labeled 'The Conscience Clause', sets impossible conditions for journalists. It requires that any article published "may be published only with the permission of the author... the author in this instance includes the person with whom the journalist did his interview, as long as his comments are reported as direct speech".

In other words, you won't be able to publish any article in which the source you cite doesn't give (written? verbal?) approval that his or her comments be used.

A little explanation is needed. Slovakia's press is currently governed by a skimpy four-page law from 1966 that says nothing about what people talking to journalists can do if their comments are misrepresented, reported inaccurately or outright falsified. In this legal wasteland, Slovak journalists and their sources have drawn up a gentleman's agreement which says that if the source requests, the reporter must send the quotes he or she intends to use for 'authorisation'. Meaning: the source can request that words be added or subtracted to make the meaning of the quote more clear, or can ask that statements of fact be altered if they later prove to have been mistaken (7% of sales rather than 9%, etc.) The agreement, of course, does not allow people to strike entire sentences or paragraphs from what they said if they later regret having said it.

But if the new media law is passed, it will mean that sources cannot be quoted at all without their permission, even if it means crucial and meaningful statements of vital interest to the public can be retracted by state officials. Imagine what this will mean to the work of the daily press, which always works under cruel print deadlines, if each quote must be checked and approved. How many statements, perhaps made in heated moments but reflecting a vital truth about the person interviewed, could then be annulled by the repentant speaker? How many important articles will be snared on the self-serving or querulous objections of one respondent?

This isn't about protecting bereaved mothers from aggressive fools shoving cameras in their faces as their childrens' bodies are dragged from burning cars. It's about state officials like former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, who screamed obscenities at Czech reporter Vladimír Mišauer in 1999 for daring to shoot pictures at the funeral of former Economy Minister Ján Ducký. Does Mečiar wish he could erase those words from the public record? Probably. Was it important that the public be informed of the extent to which Slovakia's three-time prime minister could lose his calm? Indubitably.

So who stands to gain? Politicians, plain and simple. Not only has the law attracted an unusually broad band of support (its authors include Ján Budaj of the governmental LDÚ party, Jiří Malchárek of the ruling coalition SOP, Ladislav Ballek of the coalition SDĽ and Dušan Jarjabek of the opposition HZDS), but its promoters all hail from parties which could use a boost in the polls that a media law skirmish might produce.

Politicians have some persuasive arguments in support of their new law. Here's what The Slovak Spectator learned from former Culture Minister Ivan Hudec of the HZDS at an April 3 sitting of the Parliamentary Media Committee:

"If you [as a journalist] have not disappointed me or misrepresented me in the past, it will be enough that I give you approval over the phone. Otherwise I will ask for [written] approval. Journalism in Slovakia is currently at a very low level, it's mostly yellow and tabloid press which hurts people without regard to their political affiliation. This law could help the media become a free social force, not one under the control of various political influences. In Slovakia, if you want to learn the truth, you have to read foreign media."

But do a few bad journalists justify a blanket muzzle on all media? Mr. Hudec' beliefs notwithstanding, if the new law is passed as it stands, the public will never again get the unvarnished, unrehearsed reactions of public servants - the moments at which truths are spoken that years of careful PR can never erase. Instead, readers will be fed on a steady diet of tailored phrases that mean nothing, the sound and fury edited out by a law that serves only its authors.

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