Former journalist Marián Ostátnik is lobbying for an ethics council.
photo: Martina Pisárová
"We once allowed a Slovak television station to film women in our club," said Jana Štúrová, psychologist and head of Centre Hope in Bratislava's Petržalka, which helps women and children victims of violence. "Their eyes were covered and their voices changed, but two of the seven women were still recognised by their violent husbands. One was beaten as a result, the other suffered verbal violence."
Štúrová was speaking at a Bratislava conference September 26 dedicated to the portrayal of victims of domestic violence in the media.
She said the TV station's shots, while obscuring the women's faces, had not hidden their hair and clothing, thus making it easy for the offenders to recognise their spouses.
That the media play an important role in educating the public about domestic violence was conceded by all participants, but many added that the Slovak media in comparison to their western counterparts had a lot to learn about the potential consequences of their stories.
"I once worked with a 15 year-old-girl who had been molested by her father since she was 14," said Oľga Tomišová, a psychologist with the state-run advisory and psychological help centre in western Slovakia's Malacky. Because the girl had been afraid to report the case to the police, a friend had done so on her behalf. It later turned out that the father had also molested her younger sister, said Tomišová.
A Slovak daily paper which Tomišová refused to name had found out about the case, and had written a story which had doubted the credibility of the girl's accusation. Her family had pressured her to drop the charges, and her community had turned against the girl, Tomišová said. She later ran away from home and attempted to commit suicide. "My question is, did the journalist influence that decision [to commit suicide]? Could he have had some negative impact on the girl's life?"
Such stories have become increasingly common in Slovakia's media market, where few rules or professional principles exist to guide journalists through the ethical minefield of reporting domestic violence and sexual abuse.
"The Slovak media are still quite sensationalist, and journalists sometimes don't realise the possible consequences of their work," said Anna Šlapková, head of the National Gender Centre and the organiser of the conference.
According to Šlapková, Slovak journalists were often expected by their editors or publishers to write sensational stories which helped sell their papers or attract audiences to TV stations. "The problem is that there is no ethical standards applied by the media which would set some limits, particularly when portraying child victims of violence."
Jan George Frajkor, head of the school of journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa, said that while in Canada, "the public's right to know is considered a greater good than the individual's right to privacy," he added that there were cases in which reporters had a duty to be particularly sensitive.
"Take such crimes as rape, family abuse or incest, where the identify of the victim in some cases must be held back not just out of sensitivity, but also in obedience to the law. Reporters are therefore much more sensitive in these cases, for fear of getting their media into legal trouble."
The legal sanctions which applied to media which identified victims without their permission, he said, helped to keep ethics at the forefront of media managers' concerns.
While Slovak broadcast media are regulated by the state Broadcast and Retransmission Council (RVR) in a way similar to that in Canada, print media in Slovakia do not have any such regulatory organ. "We've been trying since 1990 to form press councils that would act as regulatory bodies punishing unethical journalism, but we still don't have them," said Marián Ostatník, head of the Alliance for Ethical Journalism foundation, and a former journalist.
"Of course, people can still sue newspapers, but trials here take four or five years. We really need self-regulatory bodies staffed by journalists themselves if we want to improve the ethics and quality of Slovak reporting," he added, noting that such press councils are part of a draft amendment to the country's 1966 media law, which is expected to be passed by the end of this year.
Ostatník added that Slovak journalists needed greater independence from the editors, which might allow them to refuse to do a story which they felt was unethical or politically biased.
But while ethical journalism remains the exception than the norm in Slovakia, and while legal infractions go unpunished, conference participants appealed to the media to be more careful and professional in portraying the victims of violence.
"Although they [children] may sometimes agree to speak to the media, they are not able to foresee the possible consequences of their actions. Journalists therefore have to bear this responsibility," Štúrová noted.
"The negative response a child's family or community may have if the child speaks to the media can cause even greater distress to the victims, and sometimes lead to tragedy. Reporters have to remember that the future of the victims is far more important than their desire to get an attractive story."