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WHEN IS IT SAFE TO LIMIT SELF-EXPRESSION?

Freedom of speech á la Slovakia

TWICE in recent months, the Slovak media and Slovak intellectuals have raised the issue of freedom of speech.
The topic first made headlines in the brouhaha over the showing of the documentary, Love Your Neighbour, on the second channel of Slovak Television.
Slovak Television's general director, Richard Rybníček, first banned the show because it included strongly anti-Semitic comments made by an individual from a city that had persecuted its Jews under the World War II Slovak state, and driven many of the rest away through a vicious pogrom in 1946.

TWICE in recent months, the Slovak media and Slovak intellectuals have raised the issue of freedom of speech.

The topic first made headlines in the brouhaha over the showing of the documentary, Love Your Neighbour, on the second channel of Slovak Television.

Slovak Television's general director, Richard Rybníček, first banned the show because it included strongly anti-Semitic comments made by an individual from a city that had persecuted its Jews under the World War II Slovak state, and driven many of the rest away through a vicious pogrom in 1946.

After extensive publicity the programme was shown a week later along with an in depth discussion and debate that also touched on the question of whether the Catholic Church was institutionally to blame for what had happened.

Then in mid-July, Vladimír Palko, minister of the interior, called on the Swedish ambassador to Slovakia to protest the treatment of Ake Green, a Lutheran minister in Sweden who had been punished for making anti-homosexual comments in a sermon.

Is free speech dangerous? Can it cause harm?

In the United States, the first amendment to the Constitution (actually the third amendment when it was first proposed, but the first two were defeated) says that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech or of religion. But the US Supreme Court has agreed that limits can be placed on the exercise of free speech. One cannot yell "fire" in a crowded theater. Advertising speech can also be limited.

In retrospect, Rybníček's expressed concern about freedom of speech may simply have been a gimmick to get higher ratings for the documentary. One of the clear overall messages of the programme is the harm that resulted from anti-Semitism.

Palko and his colleagues in the Christian Democratic Party, like their conservative colleagues in the United States, blamed "political correctness" when they were criticised for their anti-gay attitudes.

There is no "Christian" position on homosexuality. Palko and friends cited six or seven "clobber" passages that they believe show that God and Jesus Christ see homosexuality as a sin. Other Christians see a more important general message in the New Testament of a loving God who accepts and loves all people.

Many European countries have laws limiting hate speech, most growing out of the belief that the message of Hitler's Mein Kampf and the hateful articles of Nazi newspapers and magazines led directly to the extermination of millions of Jews during World War II.

A sad chapter in the United States is the racist speech often associated with widespread lynchings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Both of these examples reflect a belief in the strong effects of propaganda.

But perhaps the propaganda and the hate speech did not change anyone's mind and simply reflected, unfortunately, the attitudes of many people.

If propaganda is so strong, why did communism collapse in central and eastern Europe despite communist control of the media?

Most US editors and journalists believe it is not their job to think about what kind of impact the publication of an article or opinion will have.

In July 1990 I was present at a luncheon in Prague attended by a number of the leading journalistic figures in the United States and the new leaders of post-communist journalism in central and eastern Europe.

Michael Žantovský, then President Václav Havel's press secretary, said that Havel would oppose the publication of the names of 140,000 alleged collaborators with the secret police.

Immediately, the American journalists were on their feet. Ben Bradlee, former editor of the Washington Post, was appalled that Havel, an advocate of free speech during communist rule, would dare to suggest that a post-communist government would limit the publication of information. He recalled his own experience of being on President Richard Nixon's list of enemies during the Watergate political situation in the early 1970s.

The issue in Prague became moot when an outspoken Czech published the list. Some names were on that list by mistake. Other names that should have been on that list were not included.

A list of Slovak secret police collaborators could well be published in the next couple of months.

Palko, Ján Čarnogurský, and other Christian Democratic leaders were among the most important figures in the Slovak dissident movement in the 1980s, and know what limits on freedom of speech mean, and they do not want to see them repeated.

Last winter I had a beer with a young Slovak journalist (whose aunt is a nun) in one of Bratislava's pubs. I asked her about her views on several issues to compare them with a poll that had been done among the youth of four countries - the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia. One of the questions dealt with attitudes on homosexuals.

Homosexuals were OK, she said. They were biologically wired that way. Morality was not the question. But she drew the line at homosexual marriage. That survey of young people, who were not even teenagers during communist rule and whose social views are considerably more liberal than those of their parents, showed roughly similar percentages favouring and opposing gay marriage.

"Did she have any homosexual friends," I asked. She did not know. They were still too afraid to come out, particularly those from outside Bratislava. In one of his memoirs, the late Slovak Jewish writer Ján Kalina suggests that during the interwar period homosexual gathering places in Bratislava were well known.

My daughters have no problem with homosexuals. They just don't want any public displays of affection from anyone, homosexual or heterosexual.

A Slovak legal historian told me that the problem is really that even if Palko spoke as a private person or as a member of his party, he is Minister of the Interior, responsible for enforcing Slovakia's laws. Palko is responsible for serving all of the people of Slovakia, not just the people who share his beliefs.

Most journalism researchers suggest that in highly democratic societies the media are successful in telling people what to think about but not what to think. Maybe Palko and his Christian Democratic colleagues are also not accomplishing what they want by talking about these issues.

Two generations of authoritarian or totalitarian rule from 1938 to 1989 have taught people in Slovakia what hate can do, but also what it means when speech is limited or controlled.

What is missing in the debate in Slovakia are two things.

One is a tolerance for differing viewpoints. Many people in Slovakia have a tendency to view things in terms of black and white, right and wrong, with no continuum between the two. Moral views especially, they argue, cannot be compromised.

The second is a concern for the good of society in Slovakia as a whole, for both Slovaks and Hungarians; for Lutherans, Catholics, Jews, non-believers, and people of other religious faiths; for the Roma and blacks and Arabs.

Real freedom of speech and reasoned debate will make enormous progress when people in Slovakia learn to express moral beliefs in a way that will not offend or harm people who are unlike themselves.


Owen V Johnson spent eight months in Slovakia in 2003/04, studying media and nationalism in Slovakia in the 20th century.

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