Ready to rumble. Despite the murky media restrictions contained in Slovakia's new election law, the country's media vows it will not be intimidated by big fines, and will cover political developments fully during the campaign period.
"We won't change one syllable of our news coverage and commentary," said Hryc, director general of Rádio Twist, one of the main private alternatives to the state-owned Slovak Radio. "However, we cannot boycott the law, we do have to follow it."
The new law, passed in May 1998, contains strict guidelines on how Slovakia's electronic media may cover September's national elections. At first, the country's domestic opposition as well as the US government and the EU warned that the media clauses would bias news coverage during the campaign period in favour of the government. But with a month to go before the national vote, most of the country's independent press and electronic media have vowed to report on politics and parties as usual, even at the risk of incurring large fines.
The new law restricts the election campaigns of political parties to public, state-owned stations, such as Slovak Television (STV) and Slovak Radio (SRo). "Election campaigning on other television or radio license holders is forbidden," reads the text of the law.
But other sections of the law are more vague, creating uncertainty as to what kind of news coverage of political parties might be allowed during the campaign period, which lasts from August 26 to September 23. "During the election campaign, it is forbidden...to make public any information which promotes the candidate political parties," says section 23, paragraph 3 of the law. Infringe-ments of the new rules on media coverage are punishable by a fine of up to 5,000,000 Slovak crowns ($1.4 million).
Pavel Rusko, general director and former owner of Slovakia's largest independent TV station, TV Markíza, said that the media clauses had been targetted primarily at his station, and criticized the vagueness of the law's wording . "The article [of the law] says you have to stop bringing information about any activities which may be propaganda of political parties and programs in Slovakia," he said. "These 'activities' - what is it? It's crazy."
Despite the uncertainty, and the possible price of disobedience, Rusko said that Markíza will respect only the moratorium on running ads for political parties on private electronic media stations. "We will continue with SITO [Markíza's regular political discussion program], and we will choose the politicians [for political talk shows]. According to the explanation we have [from legal experts], nothing has changed regarding news and talk shows," said Rusko.
But VTV, the only other Slovak private TV station, said it interprets the law as banning round table discussion programs. VTV program director Ivan Mičko explained that the station will have to change the focus of these programs. "We simply won't talk about politics there and that's why we won't invite politicians," he said.
Anna Malíková, head of the news department at VTV, explained that the station's objective style of news reportage means that no changes are necessary to bring it into conformity with the new law. "We have never used commentaries in our news and we won't do it during the election period," she said. "Our news will be strict and abrupt, following the instructions of the Council for Radio and TV Broadcasting."
In early July, a company named TV Plus became the new majority owner of VTV. The Slovak Business Register shows that the chairman of board of TV Plus is Vladimír Poór, a well-known Trnava businessman and linked by the opposition media to the ruling HZDS party of Vladimír Mečiar. The Chairman of the Board of Control at TV Plus is Fedor Flašík, owner of the Donar advertising agency which is handling the election campaign of the HZDS.
Radio Twist 's Hryc, while vowing no programming changes, said that the new law discriminated against private media and "legalizes the inequality of private electronic media to public channels." The 1991 law on radio and television broadcasting, he said, "makes these two kinds of electronic media equal. So there is a conflict between the two laws."
But Milan Ftáčnik, a deputy from the former communist SDĽ party , contradicted Hryc's assertions of legislative conflict. Ftáč-nik, who sits on the Parliamentary Culture, Sport and Education Committee which reviewed the media provisions, said the 1991 law is a general law on media while the media provisions of the new election law are only a supplement to the main law. "However, that doesn't mean that the SDĽ agrees with the [election] law," he added.
Meanwhile, Rádio Nitra, another private radio station in south Slovakia, espoused a more conciliatory approach to political coverage during the election campaign. "We will strictly follow the law," said Miroslav Kovarčík, Rádio Nitra director general. "We are a poor radio station, and we can't afford to pay a fine," he added.
Kovarčík said he agreed with the new restrictions on media coverage during the campaign period, arguing that public stations catered to a national audiences, and thus should be given the responsibility of political coverage. "Private media do not cover as big an area as public channels, so they cannot approach such a [large] audience," he said. "Public media can do it, because they cover whole territory of Slovakia."
Press: left out?
Although the 30-day political coverage moratorium applies only to electronic media, Slovak print media have been involved in a way as well. The election law says in Section 23 paragraph 1 that "every political party must have the same access to mass information media," which, according to the government's official explanation of the law, means that print media cannot refuse to carry the advertisement of any political party.
But in practice, it seems likely that the rule will not force the two most antagonistic Slovak daily newspapers, the opposition Sme and the government Slovenská Republika, to carry the ads of their political enemies.
"So far no [governing] coalition party has had an advertisement in our paper, and we do not expect they will try to do so during the campaign," said Iveta Schnellyová, Sme's advertising director. She added that if the government parties applied for space, she would discuss the matter with her editor-in-chief, but "we most probably wouldn't publish it."
Slovenská Republika's advertising director, Dušan Jurík, expressed the same sentiments. "We published an SDĽ advertisement about half a year ago, but I do not think the opposition parties will advertise with us during the election campaign," he said. Would Slovenská Republika accept such a request? "Absolutely not," answered Jurík.