Sophisticated censorship calls for new kinds of resistance

ON the same day that Slovak newspapers reported that Ukrainian journalists had embarked on a hunger strike to protest against the state's closure of the country's only independent television station, Reporters Without Borders released its third annual worldwide index of press freedom.

Slovakia was listed as first in the world in providing the greatest freedom to the press in 2003. Slovakia shared its first-place honour with seven other nations, all of them northern European countries well known as havens for peace.

Joining Slovakia are Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Slovakia's neighbour, the Czech Republic, ranked nineteenth, Hungary was twenty-eighth and Poland thirty-second. Last year, the Czech and Slovak Republics shared twelfth place.

The worst violators of press freedom this year are Cuba and North Korea, 166th and 167th respectively. No European Union country fell below the top forty threshold.

The ranking is certainly pleasing for a country that, just a couple of years ago, had one of its leaders, Vladimír Mečiar, listed among the worst enemies of the press.

However, Reporters Without Borders noted that Slovakia's record in 2003 was marred by the the revelation that the Slovak intelligence service had tapped the phone lines of the daily SME.

Such an action seriously undermines the right of journalists to protect their confidential information sources.

Also in 2003, the International Press Institute (IPI) reported that the media still faced dangers in Europe, where a culture of secrecy continues and laws are used to impede journalists.

The IPI, a global media freedom protection organisation with members in more than 110 countries, acknowledged that press freedom won a small victory in Slovakia when several paragraphs relating to defamation of public officials and the republic were removed from the Slovak Criminal Code.

Just two years ago, the former president of the Supreme Court, Štefan Harabín, tried to use the since-removed elements of the penal code to sue a journalist for writing articles critical of Harabín's term.

Former President Rudolf Schuster was also among those who had difficulty digesting media criticism. When he pushed for the prosecution of a journalist for defamation in 2001, it was considered one of the most serious violations of press freedom of the year.

Cases of journalist harassment - or even closure of independent radio and television stations - are not the only indicators of the state of press freedom in a country.

Sometimes, the economic rope gets wound so tightly around the necks of journalists that they sell their freedom voluntarily by writing what will sell - and that can mean writing what is acceptable to publishers and network producers who take marching orders from powerful people.

Even in countries where journalists do not have the secret police peeking over their shoulders, the need to write what is acceptable and the desire to write the truth will always struggle for balance, and impact press freedom.

Ways of making journalists write in a way that meets the goals of those in power have grown more sophisticated than cutting out of the tongue of those speak out of turn, a particularly gruesome method of silencing disobedient people in the Middle Ages.

The greatest danger the European press faces is not the iron fist of the state but rather the economics that determine the death or survival of media outlets.

The Slovak media is under strong economic pressure to survive in a small market. Newspapers and magazines emerge and disappear. Some projects that initially started out as credible sources of information have "gone tabloid", making the news juicy and brief to attract the widest possible audience. In some instances, these news sources have created or suppressed news in their crusade to appease lucrative sponsors.

The media is guilty of being cheap, too. It is not uncommon for a student to replace a journalist with 10 or 20 years field experience. Many good reporters have grown so bitter that their acid cynicism kills the story they're trying to write.

All of this has a huge impact on the quality of journalism produced - quality being only real leverage the media has to win (or deserve) its freedom.

The state-run news agency TASR, which is fed by taxpayers' pockets, continues to attract press freedom organisations' criticism. Press freedom, they say, can only be truly achieved when government and the press are independent of one another. Press organisations are disappointed in the Slovak government's failure to transform TASR into an independent agency.

Even though Slovakia has had a reformist government since 1998, and despite the fact that no other country in the European Union has a state-run press agency, the government is holding on to this last bastion of control.

By Beata Balogová

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