PRIME Minister Robert Fico and his government are not known for their good relationship with the media, yet they are trying to introduce a new press act – something that has not been done since the fall of communism in Slovakia. Fico’s cabinet approved the bill on the new press act on January 9.
“The bill is well balanced between the right to information on one side, and press freedom on the other side,” Culture Minister Marek Maďarič, who put forward the bill, told a press conference after the cabinet session.
But the proposal drew a lot of criticism from experts and journalists.
The chair of the Association of Periodical Press Publishers (ZDVP), Miloš Nemeček, said his group is fine with the basic structure of the proposal, which corresponds with the architecture of standard European press laws.
“But when it comes to the spirit of the act, we have already run up against a problem,” Nemeček told The Slovak Spectator. “This spirit has brought more unnecessary sanctions than usual.”
Two sanctions stand out, he said: the right of reply, and fines against publishers.
Paragraph 8 of the bill grants the right of reply any time information is published that offends the honour, dignity or privacy of an individual, or the good reputation of a legal entity; or any time false information is published. The person who was offended can have their defense published in the offending publication, and the newspaper or newswire must run their statement unedited.
Publishers fear that newspapers will be flooded with statements from people who feel wronged.
“We do not think the right of reply is disturbing at all; we consider it a normal instrument,” Nemeček said, noting that the Council of Europe has a similar resolution. “But not if the information is true.
“Simply, truthful information is truthful information. You can add something to it. But if it becomes a right to do so, that is very questionable.”
Every person who is criticised thinks the criticism offends their honour and reputation, he said.
“To follow the spirit of the standard European rules, it should be defined precisely that this is primarily meant to correct rumors and lies,” Nemeček said.
The European document also states that this right does not apply to state and public authorities, he said.
“This crucial limitation should be included in our law, so that no one can interpret it to mean that the government and ministries and other authorities get space to explain their policy,” he said.
But Fico said he is convinced that state authorities will not abuse this option.
“I will not use these clauses, don’t worry. You can relax,” he told journalists at the press conference where he unveiled the proposed act. “I will say what I intend to say at press conferences.”
Media analyst Gabriel Šipoš of the INEKO non-governmental organisation agreed that the right of reply carries the risk that the media would have to publish answers that are useless for readers.
“However, from my own experience, I think that the media do not currently publish enough responses or corrections, although the situation has been improving every year,” he added.
Šipoš said the solution could be phrasing the bill to specify when and in which way the reply can be offered.
“In the reply, the offended person should clarify the incomplete or misrepresented factual statements, and not just request an immediate reply if the article affects his or her honour,” he told The Slovak Spectator.
Fines unnecessary, publisher says
Nemeček also pointed out that, under Paragraph 6 of the act, the Culture Ministry would fine publishers if they promoted violence, drug addiction, racial hatred and similar things in print.
Nemeček said these matters are already addressed in the Criminal Code, so they do not need to be covered in another law.
It is also a serious problem that the fines will be imposed by Culture Ministry officials, and not by an independent court, he said. A state body led by an elected minister can abuse that right for its own purposes.
“I consider this a very serious risk,” Nemeček said.
Another problem with the bill, Šipoš said, is that it does not reflect the fact that big publishing houses do not just publish print issues any more. They have become complex information companies that publish in print and on the internet, with sound and video.
“The focus on one form of providing information creates unequal positions for journalists,” Šipoš told The Slovak Spectator.
For example, the bill makes it more effective for print reporters to protect their sources, but it does not help journalists shooting video for the same publisher’s website.
Unlike most publishers and journalists, Zuzana Krútka, the head of the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists, spoke positively about the proposed press act.
“The immunity of information was included there; it means that information from official sources, as long as they are published unchanged, are the responsibility of the source,” she told the public Slovak Television on January 9. “This is crucial.”
Krútka told The Slovak Spectator that the syndicate will keep analysing the bill as it makes its way through government.
“There is a whole range of traps,” she said. “We know that there are huge lobbyist pressures on the bill.”
The press act has been amended six times since the Velvet Revolution, but a new act has never been passed.
“Most of these attempts failed because there was either not enough political will to pass it, or the bills were badly prepared,” Krútka told The Slovak Spectator earlier.
When he introduced journalists to the press act they might be forced to live by at a press conference on January 9, Fico did not sugar-coat his words.
“You do not have to like us; we do not want it that way, anyway,” he said. “You do not like us, so you can write in this way. But the trouble is that you lie. I am speaking generally now. You write lies, half-truths. You refuse to publish facts that give a clear image of the situation. Do not lie and do not fabricate things, as these lies and these fabrications have been innumerable recently.”