THE NEWS department of state-run Slovak Television (STV) has adopted an internal charter to secure balance, objectivity and independence from political forces in the run-up to September's general elections.
As of December 1, 2001, the charter, largely modelled on ethical standards adhered to by the British BBC, became binding for all STV news staff. Repeated and intentional breaches of the charter may cost reporters their jobs, said the head of the news department, Viera Krúpová.
"We chose the BBC because we consider the station to be objective and widely credited in this respect," Krúpová said.
The 25-page charter addresses programme balance and objectivity at the public broadcaster and clarifies existing rules for objective reporting and for prioritising news items.
In their pieces, reporters must be factual, clear and impartial. Any commentary presented on STV must be clearly labelled as such, must be non-partisan, and presented outside of regular news sections. To prevent potential manipulation from inside the news department, editing changes in reporters' pieces must not be made without the author's approval.
The recently elected head of the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists (SSN), Stanislava Benická, praised the introduction of the charter, which according to her was a standard handbook for reporters in western public TV stations.
Benická also said that to have the charter printed was equally important as adhering strictly to its contents.
"It's certainly good to have the charter, but they also must keep to it," Benická said. She added that the period before parliamentary elections was a time when political parties realised how important their media presentation was.
She said: "From my personal experience I know that political pressures on journalists do become more intense. The media must resist these pressures or risk losing credit with their audiences."
Although Krúpová said she had not yet been bombarded by phone calls from political parties trying to persuade her to present their parties in the news, she said her department had to get ready to face potential pressures in the upcoming months.
"You may be surprised but I don't get any calls from politicians, and as far as I know neither do my colleagues. But perhaps this is because we're not so close to the elections," Krúpová said.
However, she added that several politicians and state representatives have in the recent past criticised the station for what they thought was insufficient coverage of their activities, including President Rudolf Schuster, who has several times complained that STV had little interest in presenting the head of state in a positive light.
In response to similar complaints, the charter includes a priority list of state officials' activities which are considered newsworthy and important for citizens to be informed of.
STV's objectivity was attacked between 1994 and 1998, when the public broadcaster virtually became a "tool of pure propaganda for the then-ruling Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS)," according to the SSN's Benická. While fewer allegations of political manipulation are made these days, STV's problematic financial situation and persisting debt could theoretically endanger the station's integrity (see sidebar).
Rastislav Kužeľ, head of media monitoring agency Memo98, said he hoped STV would be able to resist pressures from political parties, pointing to the scenario in 1998 when the HZDS dominated the public broadcaster.
Benická added: "I believe the current news staff will not allow themselves to be manipulated into a similar situation."