Robert Fico’s refusal to communicate with the Sme daily is another reminder of how his government is increasingly resembling its authoritarian predecessor from 1994 to 1998.
The bone of contention between the prime minister and Sme was apparently a report dated January 3 on the government celebration of the 15th anniversary Slovak independence in Martin. The crowd was described as “taken aback” at repeated statements by ruling coalition speakers describing Slovakia as proud and confident.
Following the publication of this report, Fico said through his spokesperson that he saw “no reason” to answer Sme’s questions on other topics, because this only created “further room for unpleasant attacks on the Slovak government”.
Fico’s response resembles a fit of pique by another democratically-challenged leader, former PM Vladimír Mečiar. After a government spokesman described Mečiar intimate Blažena Martinčeková in 1997 as his “advisor for everything”, and the country’s independent media raised a ruckus in response, ministers in the Mečiar cabinet stopped attending press conferences, sending their spokes-stooges instead to read from prepared statements. Certain media (such as The Slovak Spectator) were even blacklisted, and journalists who worked for them were refused interviews with ruling coalition MPs.
There would be something laughably puerile in such behavior if it wasn’t also evidence of a serious problem in relations between the media and politicians in Slovakia.
In countries where this relationship is more mature, politicians regularly use “access” to reward media that support them and to punish those that don’t. In the United States, Bush administration lapdogs like Fox News stand a far better chance of getting an interview with Vice President Dick Cheney than, say, liberal rags like the New York Times (Cheney even banned a New York Times reporter from travelling with the Republican campaign airplane in 2004). Individual reporters can also get a rough ride from their political respondents, as Adam Clymer of the New York Times found when George W. Bush called him “a major league asshole” in front of his peers during the 2000 presidential campaign. (Bush didn’t realize his comments were caught on microphone.)
But – and here’s the point – politicians and governments in these countries never blacklist a newspaper as a whole. Bush may not be available for an interview with the New York Times – ever – but his staff would never, on his orders, refuse to answer a trivial request by the Times for the Bush stance on marijuana smoking or helicopter use, as Fico did to Sme. Not only would such a refusal merely antagonise the media, it would also make him look petty.
The case in Slovakia is far from black and white. The Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) blacklisted TV Markíza while it was in power, while former PM Mikuláš Dzurinda did almost as much whining about media bias as Fico has. And Slovak politicians remain poorly served by their press people, who still don’t seem to understand that an ounce of prevention – engaging with the media by inviting journalists for coffee or feeding them tips – is better than a pound of cure through blacklisting.
But just because Fico may be no worse than his predecessors doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be better. Instead of pouring oil on the fire with Sme, the government should trust the media market to eliminate irresponsible journalism, if indeed Sme is guilty of it. Instead of picking fights with journalists, the prime minister should accept that in a democracy, it is the media’s job to be critical, just as it is the government’s job to defend its record. After all, if the Slovak economy can grow at almost 10 percent a year, why can’t the nation’s political culture?