MIKLÓS Haraszti, a Hungarian writer and former dissident, was appointed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as its freedom of the media representative in 2004. On January 22 he addressed a letter to Slovak Foreign Minister Ján Kubiš criticising the Slovak government's draft Press Act, which it submitted to parliament this month. After Culture Minister Marek Maďarič dismissed the letter as the work of "not a very high representative" of the OSCE, The Slovak Spectator interviewed Haraszti to get his side of the story.
The Slovak Spectator: Were you surprised that your letter was dismissed by Culture Minister Maďarič?
Miklós Haraszti (MH): I did not even know who Maďarič was until yesterday. I just hope he is basing his comments on the full version of the letter that I sent to my beloved former colleague, Mr Ján Kubiš, who used to be the secretary-general of the OSCE, rather than on press reports of what I wrote. While it's true that I didn't study the draft press act in Slovak, but instead from two unofficial English translations, I did speak to many experts who have read it in Slovak, and I also studied the expert opinion of the Association of Publishers of Slovakia. All these sources were unequivocal in their criticism of two articles in the draft law.
TSS: What is it that you object to?
MH: I am referring here to articles 6 and 11. The problem is that article 6 gives the minister of culture - now I know it is Mr Maďarič - the power to decide if any paper in the country has presented information "in a way that belittles, excuses or apologises for the promotion" of many forms of bad behaviour, such as war, aggression, violence, drug use, and - I counted them myself - 16 types of hate. I believe that this gives excessive power to the executive branch to decide whether material was properly or improperly produced, which is a deep, deep intrusion into editorial autonomy. For one thing, the terms are completely vague, subjective and absolutely undefined, which alone means that any intervention based on these terms will be arbitrary. Second, in no democracy can the executive have that power, because it belongs to the judicial branch, and only in criminal cases. The only reference to the judiciary in this draft law is in the case of appeals, and even there it is only an administrative function - the courts will not have the power to look into the matter, only whether the formalities were violated or not. That gives the executive an intrusive power that is excessive and totally unusual in a democracy. This isn't a matter of politics, but of standards.
Article 11 in the draft law would create a new kind of intrusion into editorial autonomy - the right to a response, which would be given to anyone who felt criticised or that their honour or dignity had been impugned. That's something different from the existing law, which gives people the right to a correction or a remedy if untrue facts are published. This is arguable in a court, and if the case is proven, the court can force the paper to print a retraction. The new law would make the right to a response an automatic one, and would fine any paper that refused to print a response in the same space the article had appeared. This right would also affect opinion and comment articles, because they usually have some basis in fact.
I believe this is nothing but an attempt by the government via the law to homogenize the opinion content of private individual outlets. In a democracy this is not permissible. In a pluralistic democracy, editors have the right to bias. This kind of complaint mechanism cannot be enforced on private editors, unlike public service editors, who are required to give equal space to competing opinions.
TSS: Are there other laws like this in Europe, or is Slovakia a special case?
MH: It is absolutely unusual. I am quite sure that those who proposed it would claim that there are similar laws out there, but let me assure you, a right to reply by anyone who feels that their honour and dignity was impacted by a factual statement, whether or not it was true, cannot exist in a democracy. We know of similar laws east of Bratislava, but not to the west.
Interestingly, the right measure is contained within the draft act in article 10. It's called redress, remedy or the right to a correction, and this is about factual statements. The Strasbourg Court of Human Rights makes a very clear distinction between opinions and facts. The right of reply can be attached to facts or factual statements that deliberately put facts into a false light in order to damage someone. But what I'm talking about is article 11.
TSS: Isn't Slovakia required to respect the OSCE's opinion on such legislation?
MH: Not legally, but it is indirectly obliged to fulfill the commitments to pluralism that are part of its OSCE membership. These two articles in the draft law would unduly restrict pluralism in the country because they would give power to a cabinet minister to correct the way in which facts are presented (article 6), or "boost objectivity" at private outlets, which is another way of homogenizing opinion content. My office is mandated to intervene at an early stage in cases of such violations. My intervention here was just such an early warning, asking that before they table the draft in parliament, they seek expert opinions and correct these two issues. If the parliament passed this law as a fait accompli, it would mean that Slovakia is violating its OSCE commitments, and I believe that anything that was done on the basis of these two articles would stumble upon the European Court of Human Rights. Slovakia would also fall under the constant criticism of my office, and I believe also of the 55 other participating states of the OSCE.
28. Jan 2008 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson