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EDITORIAL

Mud on the champions: The limits on the truth

THE WEEKLY paper Domino fórum this week issued a challenge to Slovak national hockey team coach Ján Filc to respond to a story the paper had run about corruption and money-laundering in the nation's hockey leagues.
Domino editor Štefan Hríb reported that Filc had hung up on him when he called to ask for an interview, after saying the Domino story had "hurt Slovak hockey".
In a story entitled "Mud on the nation of champions", Domino had written that despite the gold medal performance of the national side in the recent World Hockey Championships in Sweden, domestic hockey was being corroded by bribery from parents to have their less-skilled sons accepted to hockey programmes, and wholesale game-fixing by players and coaches to profit from bets that teams would draw, the highest-odds result with betting shops.


WHEN is the best time to break it to them?
photo: Marek Velček - SME

THE WEEKLY paper Domino fórum this week issued a challenge to Slovak national hockey team coach Ján Filc to respond to a story the paper had run about corruption and money-laundering in the nation's hockey leagues.

Domino editor Štefan Hríb reported that Filc had hung up on him when he called to ask for an interview, after saying the Domino story had "hurt Slovak hockey".

In a story entitled "Mud on the nation of champions", Domino had written that despite the gold medal performance of the national side in the recent World Hockey Championships in Sweden, domestic hockey was being corroded by bribery from parents to have their less-skilled sons accepted to hockey programmes, and wholesale game-fixing by players and coaches to profit from bets that teams would draw, the highest-odds result with betting shops.

Hríb wrote that "we had the feeling that this was the right time to start talking about hidden problems," and compared Filc's reaction to the behaviour of the former Mečiar government, "that rather than its own mistakes, it was the people who pointed them out that were hurting Slovakia."

In recent weeks, years of muted criticism by government politicians of Slovak media have given way to sharp accusations of unethical and unprofessional conduct. Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda is among those who has said the negativism of domestic journalists paints such a dreary picture of reality in Slovakia that he barely recognises his own nation.

At issue, obviously, is the role of the media, or more specifically, what approach the media should take to the catalogue of problems and missteps a country in transition from a command economy can be expected to suffer.

If media are supposed to serve the communities that follow them, it's natural that they should also be sensitive to the reactions people have to what they read, hear or see in the news.

While most Slovaks do want to hear about corruption, crime, scandals and chicanery, they also want to know that the country is moving in the right direction. They want to see its victories celebrated, as much as they need to know its problems are not being ignored.

This is where the Slovak media run against a thorny problem. Do you hold fire on scandals that may not have a great impact on the common weal, but whose exposure could further damage the fragile national psyche? Or do you shoot at everything that moves, in the belief that journalists should tell every truth, no matter how unpalatable?

It's a question that has no clear answer. Domino was unquestionably right to point out the true state of Slovak hockey, because unless the problems are fixed, Slovakia's first gold medal may be its last.

On the other hand, given the importance of the victory for national pride, and the break it afforded people from the depressing state of public affairs, Domino was unlikely to be thanked for revealing yet another cesspool beneath the grass.

As with everything else in 'transition countries', the role of the media is being scripted as we go along. There are no precedents to follow, unless we find them in times of war, and directed by definitions of the national interest.

In Slovakia's case, it is clearly in the nation's interest to see a government elected in the September ballot that doesn't result in exclusion from Nato and the EU. The problem for journalists is that in faithfully chronicling the many faults of the Dzurinda government, they may so disgust the public that voters are pushed into the arms of untried or wholly compromised political alternatives.

The only guide is to be found in media ethics governing how television covers car accidents or sex crimes. The standard usually is that people be given just enough graphic detail for them to grasp the story, but not so much that they are gratuitously offended.

In Slovakia, that might mean focusing on corruption in places - politics, the state sector - where it has a serious impact on the economy and people's lives. And in areas where it might be considered of secondary public importance - hockey, for example - peddling the bad news more softly, and not so soon after an historic victory.

It's not about gutless compromise, forgotten ethics or cynicism. It's about keeping your eye on the game, and on the fact that no society can deal with all the bad news all the time. It's about allowing people to savour achievements before casting mud on a nation of champions.

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