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ATTEMPTS TO ALLOW PRIVATE ELECTRONIC MEDIA TO COVER ELECTION CAMPAIGN LOOKED DOOMED AS THE SLOVAK SPECTATOR WENT TO PRINT

Too late, say MPs of election law changes

SLOVAKS are unlikely to get the chance to watch or listen to political campaigns on private electronic media in the upcoming general elections, with most members of parliament (MPs) vowing to defeat a final attempt to amend the country's election law.
Although changing the election law was among the top priorities of current ruling coalition parties in their 1998 pre-election campaigns, the wide-spectrum coalition in four years of governance has only managed to change rules hampering coalitions from contesting elections.
Now, last-ditch efforts to allow private TV and radio stations to cover the political campaign have been dismissed as tardy, given that the general vote is only two months away.


ONLY PUBLIC electronic media are likely to be allowed to cover the campaign, risking a low election turnout, say experts.
photo: TASR

SLOVAKS are unlikely to get the chance to watch or listen to political campaigns on private electronic media in the upcoming general elections, with most members of parliament (MPs) vowing to defeat a final attempt to amend the country's election law.

Although changing the election law was among the top priorities of current ruling coalition parties in their 1998 pre-election campaigns, the wide-spectrum coalition in four years of governance has only managed to change rules hampering coalitions from contesting elections.

Now, last-ditch efforts to allow private TV and radio stations to cover the political campaign have been dismissed as tardy, given that the general vote is only two months away.

Opponents of the amendment, now in parliament, told The Slovak Spectator that their reasons for not supporting the draft were "simple - it comes too late," said Tibor Cabaj, head of the opposition HZDS party caucus.

The bill was proposed by Interior Minister Ivan Šimko, who is also general secretary of PM Mikuláš Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) party.

"What for God's sake has he [Šimko] been doing until now? We said half a year ago that it's not customary to change the election law in an election year. On top of that, when we [a HZDS-led coalition government] changed the election law in 1998 we were heavily criticised for it," Cabaj said.

In March 1998, six months before elections that year, the Vladimír Mečiar government altered the election law to require parties fighting elections in coalition to score five per cent each, a move widely perceived as an effort to create obstacles to a five-party anti-Mečiar coalition led by Dzurinda.

Cabaj said that changing the election law again at this point would be "as if we started to play football, with the players already on the playground, and somebody suddenly started to invent new rules".

Under the current law, only public stations such as the STV television channel and the SRo radio station can carry political advertising during the election campaign, which stretches for 30 days before the fall vote. Private stations have expressed fears that media control bodies may interpret 'advertising' to mean coverage in general, which would bar them from even reporting on the campaign.

Private media such as the Markíza TV station are, according to viewership surveys, more popular than state-owned media. Media watchdog Memo 98 has warned that if private media are not allowed to carry political advertising, it could reduce voter turn out in the crucial September elections.

Nato and European Union officials have said that the presence of the HZDS party in the next cabinet could prevent the country from joining both bodies. Media analysts in turn have argued that the higher the election turnout, the lower the percentage taken by the HZDS, whose estimated one million voters tend to show up for elections whatever the media coverage or social climate.

Šimko's proposal, approved by cabinet June 26, said that private media news programmes, as long as they were balanced, non-partisan and part of a station's regular programme service to citizens, should not be considered part of 'election advertising', and thus should not be subject to potential fines from media regulators.

But many coalition MPs, along with Jozef Migaš, speaker of parliament and a member of the ruling Democratic Left Party (SDĽ) considered the cabinet move incorrect.

Migaš said that "approving any changes to the election law would create an absurd situation which could put in doubt the legitimacy of the elections", which are set for September 20-21.

Šimko's proposal also aimed to shorten the pre-election campaign from 30 to 21 days, and to define the length of broadcast time for parties to promote themselves on private electronic media.

But despite Memo 98's appeal to parliament to pass the law, MPs and cabinet officials maintained the coalition had missed its chance.

Marián Mesiarik, from the ruling coalition's Civil Understanding Party (SOP), said June 28 that "we've ruled for four years. What was standing in our way to accept such a law three years ago? Such a serious law cannot now be discussed and passed in eight hours."

Ľubomír Fogaš, deputy PM for legislation, echoed Mesiarik's words.

"I'm convinced that changes should have been made much earlier in the name of the citizen and greater clarity in the elections," he said, adding that "at that time, however, there was not the political will."

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