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EDITORIAL

Slovakia's press law: Nasty, brutish and short

Slovakia's press law is a joke. Passed in 1966 and amended nine times since then, it contains only 43 paragraphs and 18 articles, in which space it attempts to define complex relationships such as those between journalists and their sources, the press and the courts, and media owners and the public. It's too short, vague and - frankly, communist - to guarantee either the public's right to objective information, the journalist's need for independence or the desire of 'newsmakers' for protection from scurrilous reporting.
Before this column is dismissed as another self-indulgent rant about difficult working conditions, the following points should be considered. First, the current law does not force owners of newspapers to disclose their identities, meaning that readers know little about the people who print what they read, or about their political and business interests.

Slovakia's press law is a joke. Passed in 1966 and amended nine times since then, it contains only 43 paragraphs and 18 articles, in which space it attempts to define complex relationships such as those between journalists and their sources, the press and the courts, and media owners and the public. It's too short, vague and - frankly, communist - to guarantee either the public's right to objective information, the journalist's need for independence or the desire of 'newsmakers' for protection from scurrilous reporting.

Before this column is dismissed as another self-indulgent rant about difficult working conditions, the following points should be considered. First, the current law does not force owners of newspapers to disclose their identities, meaning that readers know little about the people who print what they read, or about their political and business interests. In a country like Slovakia, where hidden interests govern everything from privatisation to how much you pay for a loaf of bread, transparency in media ownership is essential. A case in point is Markíza TV boss Pavol Rusko, and his shameless promotion of people who can advance his political future.

Secondly, there is no clear definition of what damages should be awarded if a public or private individual is harmed by shoddy or malicious journalism. Courts hand out gross settlements for relatively minor infractions, while demands such as that of pro-HZDS daily Slovenská Republika in 1998 for the army to be called out against the country's Hungarian minority go unpunished. On the other hand, politicians protected by their parliamentary immunity from prosecution cannot be charged for spreading false, libellous or classified information, leaving journalists and editors to carry the can if they report what the country's leaders say.

Finally (and this is a short list indeed), there is nothing in the media law to guarantee the journalist's urge to protect anonymous sources. Quite simply, if someone tells you something he shouldn't and you print it, you are at the mercy of the courts unless you spill the beans. Even Deep Throat might not have been so garrulous in these circumstances.

Many journalists nodded in recognition when US media watchdog Freedom House in 1998 pronounced Slovakia a "partly free" country. The feeling was that while a vibrant opposition press existed, occasional beatings of journalists and fire-bombings of their cars created a climate of fear in which reporters were afraid to speak or write the whole truth.

But now that the much-vilified Mečiar is out of power, we still seem to have a situation in which the public doesn't get the whole truth because of the political sympathies of media barons and uncertainty about how much trouble journalists can get in for offending the wrong people. If you compare important dailies such as Sme, Pravda and Národna Obroda, 'scandals' concerning the former communist SDĽ party may be front page news in Sme but blithely ignored by Pravda; on the other hand, pieces attacking the ruling SDK and the Prime Minister carry screaming headlines in Pravda but get finer print in Sme. Národna Obroda seems to go its own way, blown by the whims its politically ambitious owner Pavol Rusko.

Nor is any help on the horizon. A new media law is now in second reading in parliament, one proposed by HZDS deputy Ivan Hudec (the same Hudec who as Culture Minister in the Mečiar government backed the infamous 1996 Protection of the Republic Law proposal, which tried to make it an offense to publish anything deemed against the interests of Slovakia). Hudec's proposal would require journalists to verify "information" with "three independent reliable sources." Even Slovenská Republika editor Eduard Fašung has slammed the text, saying for Sme "I can't imagine, for example, which three independent sources would confirm the weather report."

It's all a muddle, as Dickens would say, and nothing will change until politicians begin to accept the need for an independent press that provokes well-informed reflection among the public. Nothing will change, either, until business and political sources stop demanding an absurd right to 'authorise' their comments - to have what they actually said sent back to them before being published, so they can un-say it, or say it in a less interesting and culpable way. Although no law exists requiring journalists to allow such authorisations, any media hack will tell you how difficult it is to get comments from sources unless you permit the practice.

Nothing will change, finally, until readers, listeners and viewers stop giving their attention to media which don't have the courage - or the will - to ignore the foolish press law and start publishing the whole truth - come what may.

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