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RADIO AND TV COUNCIL GETS TOUGH ON PROGRAMMING

Private media bow under pressure

After a week of defiance, Slovakia's most popular TV station, TV Markíza, caved in to pressure from the Radio and Television Broadcasting Council and cancelled its 'Leaders' programme on September 6.
The Council, established to monitor infractions of media law, had been insisting that the programme violated the terms of Slovakia's new election law. Section 23 of the law declares that electronic media are "forbidden...to make public any information that promotes the candidate parties." The Leaders programme, which first ran on August 30, featured personal profiles of opposition leaders.
"We wanted the programme cancelled because it showed a part of the campaign ad of the [largest opposition party] Slovak Democratic Coalition," explained Jarmila Grujbárová, the director of the Council Office.


Full stop. Private station Markíza TV was forced to cancel its 'Leaders' programme under the terms of the new election law.
Courtesy of Markíza

After a week of defiance, Slovakia's most popular TV station, TV Markíza, caved in to pressure from the Radio and Television Broadcasting Council and cancelled its 'Leaders' programme on September 6.

The Council, established to monitor infractions of media law, had been insisting that the programme violated the terms of Slovakia's new election law. Section 23 of the law declares that electronic media are "forbidden...to make public any information that promotes the candidate parties." The Leaders programme, which first ran on August 30, featured personal profiles of opposition leaders.

"We wanted the programme cancelled because it showed a part of the campaign ad of the [largest opposition party] Slovak Democratic Coalition," explained Jarmila Grujbárová, the director of the Council Office. "Even if the new law were not in force, it would still have been unacceptable to broadcast such material in the private media."

But Stanislav Pavlík, Markíza's programme director, insisted that "we consider this to be discrimination against Markíza." Pavlík pointed to state run Slovak Television, which carries a series named 'Personalities' which profiles members of the government. "If paragraph 23 [of the election law] is valid, it should be valid for all media, and that includes STV."

The Council took up Pavlík's complaint at a September 9 press conference in Bratislava. Grujbárová agreed that STV had also been guilty of election law violations. "We have cancelled the 'Personalities' progamme until September 26," she announced.

Under the election law, the Council may elect to cancel the offending programme for 30 days as well as fine offenders 5,000,000 Sk ($140,000) or demand a retraction.

Other offenders

Markíza is not the only private media station which has been harried by the Council since the campaign period began on August 26. Rádio Twist, a station that twice had its signal cut off by the government in 1997, also received a letter of warning from the Council regarding its broadcast on August 27.

"They said our programme fell under the category of electioneering," said Luboš Machaj, Twist's co-owner and Programme Director. "For me, electioneering is when you have a politician saying to listeners, 'vote for me, and if you do, I'll do such and such.'"

The offending radio broadcast reported on an SDK press conference which presented the party's vision for the first 100 days of a hypothetical SDK government. Three SDK deputies spoke about their economic and legislative goals in the two-minute broadcast.

The Council sent Twist Director Andy Hryc a letter on August 31 inviting him to attend a September 8 Council meeting to discuss the programme, which "broke the law...on radio and television broadcasting and the law...on elections."

Machaj said he had been expecting a 200,000 Sk ($6,500) fine, but in the event, both Twist, Markíza and Radio Free Europe were simply asked to publicly retract the programmes that had been ruled illegal. Council chairman Peter Juráš explained that "we could have fined them all, but since we haven't discovered any other violations of the law in the interim, we decided not to."

International observers from the US, the EU and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe have all criticised the media provisions of Slovakia's election law, arguing that they imperilled balanced and unbiased coverage of the election campaign. "The role of the media is very important," said US Ambassador Ralph Johnson, "and that's why when some organizations did analyses of the law, we had some doubts. The part of the law that concerns media was very questionable."

One of the main criticisms levelled at the law was that the vague wording of its text increased the likelihood of self-censorship by media which could not afford to be fined.

Machaj agreed that as a private station, "we censor our coverage, certainly - we don't send out stuff from political rallies, for instance." But in the end, he said, the problems between his station and the Council boiled down to differences in interpretation of the law. "If we observed the law as they want us to, we wouldn't be able to broadcast a sentence," he said.

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