President Rudolf Schuster's decision last week to lay charges against a journalist who criticised his state of the nation address showed just how little some politicians understand basic democratic tenets such as freedom of speech.
The fact that he was even able to lay the charges, under a section of the Criminal Code outlawing criticism of the president, illustrated how much work remains in bringing Slovak laws into line with the rest of the developed world.
Here's what the law says, in paragraph 103 of the Criminal Code: "Whoever publicly brings shame on the president of the republic during the fulfillment of his legal duties or in any way during his political activities, may be punished by a jail term of up to two years."
Here's what Nový Čas journalist Aleš Krátky wrote in an editorial published May 26, under the title "Chaos in the head of state":
"The presentation of President Rudolf Schuster in parliament had been expected to obey his performance to date: it was to have been theatrical, pompous, full of self-pity and wounded vanity. But far from disappointing his listeners, he gave them more than they had expected. His state of the nation speech was from beginning to end a 'state of the soul' address from a puffed-up egomaniac who last experienced real life during his early childhood, and who now smiles at thunderstorms under the illusion he is being photographed [by the flashes of lightning - note added by The Slovak Spectator].
"The president's speech was evidence of his own unfitness to stand at the head of a state trying to find its place among modern and mature societies... In it he revealed his entire approach to his work - it seems he really would be content that everyone honoured him even while thinking that he was just a clown with constitutional powers..."
Schuster may be entitled under the law to sue. This is criticism, no doubt about it, while in speaking before parliament he was exercising a political duty.
But even if he wins his court case, and sees the best-selling newspaper slapped with a fine and its lead commentator clapped in irons, he still loses.
Newspapers in democratic countries, despite Schuster's apparent conviction to the contrary, survive by selling a product to people who want to buy it. In the short term, any paper may level its guns against a particular figure for personal or political reasons, but in the end, if readers disagree with such comment, or if the paper can't justify such vituperation with fact, then the hard lessons taught by market economies are served. If what Krátky wrote was scurrilous journalism, his editors and owners will pay for condoning it. If Schuster took the high road and faced down ill-addressed criticism without recourse to the courts, he would add to his accomplishments the martyr's crown.
But in acting against Krátky, Schuster has proven the grounds of accusation. He's an aging communist at heart, who cares little for public opinion as long as it isn't voiced. If it is voiced, then his main concern is to stifle and punish it - not to address the deficiencies in his performance in office which might have warranted such 'dissent'. He's a vain, muddled old man who is an embarrassment to the millions he represents, as much as he is a threat to the democratic and Christian traditions he now claims to champion.
And what of the law which permits the irate president to press his case against what was, after all, just an opinion?
Slovak legislation, unlike the settled and tried case law of older democracies, is still being hurriedly rewritten to fit current demands. It contains dozens of antediluvian gems like the 'protection of the president' paragraph. But Schuster, if he were half the democrat he claims to be, would have already taken note of international outcry against the former Vladimír Mečiar government's 1996 proposed Protection of the Republic Law, which threatened to sanction public opinion hostile to its definition of state interests, and would have taken the Krátky piece as simply a nasty bruise in a more important scrimmage.
But all of this is beside the point. Schuster's speech to parliament, for almost everyone who heard it, simply wasn't very good. It didn't help Slovak citizens, just as the court case against one of its detractors serves no one except the misguided relic who delivered the speech.
25. Jun 2000 at 0:00