The Slovak government has spent the month of May refuting the claims of two international press groups that the country's media are only "partly free." Slovakia's clean-cut image, the government claimed, was being tousled by irresponsible and misinformed foreign hypocrites.
But the government's defiant tune has been marred by repeated false notes. Attacks on Slovak journalists have continued unabated since the May 1 verdicts (see related stories, page 3), and have belied the government's claims that press criticisms are missing their mark.
Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, the authors of the damning reports, had one principal point to make about the Slovak media. In a country ruled by an authoritarian leader, they said, restrictions, threats and hostility aimed at journalists create an atmosphere that was all the more restrictive, threatening and hostile for reporters to work in. Journalists are no braver than anyone else, and if they feel intimidated they are less likely to ask tough questions of important and powerful people. And if they don't ask these questions or don't run tough articles because they are afraid of getting beaten up, or because government officials won't talk to them, then the media as a whole is not fulfilling its democratic function.
If the Slovak government were truly interested in addressing this well-aimed criticism, it would take action to ensure that people who threatened or beat up journalists were brought to book. It would provide full access to government information to all accredited journalists, and if this information were abused by reporters or their editors, it would take them to court.
But as recent events have shown, the government is more interested in shouting down its detractors than in listening to what they have to say.
Arpád Soltész, a reporter with the eastern Slovak daily Korzar, was beat up in a restaurant washroom by an unknown assailant on May 9. He had been preparing an article on the Slovak Information Service (SIS), Slovakia's secret police. The SIS responded to reporters' queries about the incident with the admonition that it was too busy to answer the accusations of every paranoid journalist.
Karol Lovaš and Slavo Klikušovsky, two journalists working in Bratislava, had their photographs pasted up all over one city district on May 14 along with the 'warning' that they were dangerous homosexual pedophiles who abused small boys and made hard core porn flicks. The fliers were signed by a "crying and unhappy mother" who claimed her son had been abused by the two reporters.
Emil Korda, the Slovak correspondent of the Czech TV station Nova, had the windows and body of his car smashed in by an unknown assailant in March, 1998. His wife and son are now in Prague for safety reasons.
A staff writer with The Slovak Spectator was beaten and tied up in his home in January, 1998 by three unknown assailants, who demanded that he give up certain photographs of an underworld killing that he was supposed to have taken. A police investigator assigned to his case told him that the SIS might have been involved, but the investigation has since been effectively closed despite official claims that "the most serious attention" was still being brought to bear on the incident.
Peter Toth, a reporter with the Slovak daily Sme, had his car firebombed by an unknown assailant in September 1997. Toth had been investigating the involvement of the SIS in the murder of Robert Remiaš, a contact in an important case regarding the kidnapping of the son of former Slovak President Michal Kováč.
Six recent attacks on journalists, and in each case, the perpetrators remain "unknown." If the Slovak government really wanted to throw media criticisms back in the teeth of its accusers, it would show a lot more enthusiasm for hunting down those responsible for such crimes. Firebombers, car-wreckers, housebreakers and washroom thugs might be difficult to track down, but surely a weeping mother trundling around Bratislava with a shopping bag stuffed with inflammatory leaflets shouldn't be too hard to locate?
One can imagine the bugle of outrage that would have sounded from Parliament if Premier Mečiar's photograph had been on those leaflets. One can imagine, too, the police resources that would have been diverted to the case until the distraught mother had been seized and clapped in irons.
And then, one can imagine what Slovak journalists think when they see how indifferent their government has become to the violence that reporters encounter in their jobs. After all, they might reason, is any story worth getting attacked for?
Freedom House was right. The Slovak press is only partly free, largely because the government has failed to protect it against violence from grief-stricken mothers and other hostile forces.