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Slovakia flunks press freedom tests

Slovakia's democratic self-esteem suffered another blow on International Press Freedom Day, when two international organizations which monitor press freedoms rated Slovakia as "partially free." The evaluation places Slovakia in the company of Albania, Russia and Zambia, and provoked some sour-faced reactions from both the Slovak government and independent media representatives.
On May 1, a French organization called Rapporteurs Sans Frontiéres (Reporters Without Borders) criticized Premier Vladimír Mečiar's cabinet for canceling regular press conferences, as well as the fact that independent media often face difficulties in getting access to official information.

Slovakia's democratic self-esteem suffered another blow on International Press Freedom Day, when two international organizations which monitor press freedoms rated Slovakia as "partially free." The evaluation places Slovakia in the company of Albania, Russia and Zambia, and provoked some sour-faced reactions from both the Slovak government and independent media representatives.

On May 1, a French organization called Rapporteurs Sans Frontiéres (Reporters Without Borders) criticized Premier Vladimír Mečiar's cabinet for canceling regular press conferences, as well as the fact that independent media often face difficulties in getting access to official information.

On the same day, the 20th Annual Press Freedom Report of a similar American organization, Freedom House, placed Slovakia in the "partially free" category on a three-rung scale of "free", "partially free" and "not free".

The Office of the Government accused Freedom House of being ill-informed. "The opinion raises doubts whether Freedom House uses facts in depicting the mass media situation in the Slovak Republic, and whether it is acquainted with reality here," the government's statement read.

But Leonard R. Sussman, the American organization's senior scholar in international communication, backed his organization's opinion. "I would say instead that the reports we have been getting from other sources tend to make us believe that our original supposition was an accurate one," he said. "Political allies were placed on Slovak [state] radio, television and the state news agency."

Dušan Kleimann, head of the TASR state news agency, was extremely unhappy with the rating. "I was outraged when I heard that Freedom House...again hurt Slovakia on the international scene by placing it... among partially free countries," Kleimann wrote in his official reaction to the report. "Your report personally offends me both as a citizen and as a journalist," he added.

Sussman stuck to his guns. "Whether [Kleimann] feels personally offended is really not the issue," he said. "The issue is the political and economic pressure on journalists in Slovakia."

But Pavol Rusko, general director of the independent Markíza TV station and President of the Association of Independent Radio and TV Stations, used similar words in his own reaction. "I was sorry and outraged when I heard that Freedom House had placed Slovakia among countries with partial freedom of the press," Rusko wrote. "Inclusion of Slovakia in the same group with Albania, Russia, Zambia and Mexico can have only two reasons - [either] absolute ignorance...or intentional manipulation of world public opinion," he charged.

Threatened journalists

Ample evidence exists that pressure is mounting on journalists in Slovakia. Over the past year, three journalists have had their cars damaged, two of whom have had to hide their families abroad in order to shelter them from open threats and violence.

In March 1997, Peter Ličák, editor-in-chief of the local daily Prešovský večerník, was left with only the shell of his car after it was blown up. Last month Eugen Korda, a Slovak reporter for the Czech private TV station Nova, had to move his family to the Czech Republic after his car was smashed up by people who Korda believes were members of the Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS), and who had been surveilling him before the incident.

Peter Tóth, a journalist with the opposition daily newspaper Sme, had his car incinerated by a Molotov cocktail last September. Toth hid his son and family abroad, and then dared to bring them to Bratislava after seven months on the occasion of a commemorative rally for International Press Freedom Day on May 3.

At the meeting, Tóth addressed the SIS and said it could not stop journalists in their efforts to search out the truth. "I'm sending a message to Ivan Lexa [SIS director] and his stooges that they will not break us," Tóth said.

Giving reasons

According to Sussman, Slovakia failed in three out of the following four monitored criteria: legal restrictions on the media; the degree to which the media is controlled by political interests; the degree to which economic factors influence news content; and the frequency and severity of violations against journalists.

The fourth criterion, Sussman said, was a minor shortcoming in Slovakia's case. "But the other three," he continued, "are quite important, and what they really tell us is that the Prime Minister has a long and continuing history of threatening the press. Coming from a strong ruler, this must be considered a threat. Many rulers of many countries have expressed their displeasure [with the press]. President Clinton expressed his displeasure with the press of the United States, but he doesn't have the [kind of] control over it that Mr. Mečiar has, and that makes a difference," concluded Sussman.

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