You can't teach an old dog new clichés

GOVERNMENTS always have their clichés. They are often passed down to the new political gang in power, like precious family heirlooms, especially if the successor in any way resembles the clichés' originator.

GOVERNMENTS always have their clichés. They are often passed down to the new political gang in power, like precious family heirlooms, especially if the successor in any way resembles the clichés' originator.

Whenever international organisations criticised the government of former prime minister Vladimír Mečiar, he hit back straight away, or simply dismissed the international community as misinformed and ignorant of his good intentions. The impression was that an easy explanation was just a question or two away, if the critic was open to listening. And if not, well, they were biased anyway, and just trying to harm the nation, he would say.

This political cliché reared its ugly head whenever Mečiar's government received a warning, be it from the European Commission, European Parliament, NATO, World Bank, OECD, OSCE, Council of Europe, or the Committee for the Protection of Journalists.

And here comes that same old cliché again.

Miklós Haraszti, the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), has requested that the Slovak government withdraw its draft bill to the Press Act, calling some of its provisions at odds with Slovakia's commitment to freedom of the press.

Speaker of Parliament Pavol Paška, a nominee of Robet Fico's Smer party, was quick to utilise the "being misunderstood" cliché.

"This attitude comes from being uninformed," Paška said as quoted by the Sme daily.

Paška also said this was not the first time a European Union institution had jumped to conclusions based on incorrect information.

Another age-old cliché served Culture Minister Marek Maďarič well, too.

"He's not a very representative," Maďarič said dismissively as quoted by the SITA news wire.

But what Haraszti said hardly came as a surprise to Maďarič and his ruling coalition colleagues.

Publishers, journalists and analysts object to the very same articles in the draft that bother the OSCE: the sections that give the government the power to impose sanctions on publishers and grant the right of reply in a way that intrudes on editorial autonomy.

But Maďarič said he sees no reason to withdraw the draft and, in the end, no one can really stop the government from passing it. However, Prime Minister Robert Fico and his team should be aware that what they're doing is opening the floodgate to justified criticism from the international community.

Maďarič does not seem to understand that the OSCE is not a tea party of amateurs who meet after Sunday lunch to grumble about the stale sermon by the local pastor. The OSCE is the largest security body in Europe and, as such, does not send out letters that pretend it's a watchdog agency. Maďarič and his buddies need to wake up and smell the coffee: there is something wrong with their version of the Press Act.

Slovakia's media environment is craving a new press code to replace the one that's rooted in the communist regime.

However, manufacturing press codes in times when the cabinet meets at special sessions to pass a resolution on the media and when the country's prime minister has labeled journalists part of the political opposition is - euphemistically put - complicated.

"The fight brewing between the media and the government is very atypical, as the media have taken on the role of political opposition," Prime Minister Fico restated on January 21.

The fact that Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič publicly toyed with the idea of a governmental media outlet that would present truthful information about the operation of the government does not make it easier.

Deputy Prime Minister Dušan Čaplovič even insulted journalists' intelligence by suggesting that newspapers "hire anyone". He then said only a trained journalist would be worth working with.

A debate about the quality of journalistic training in Slovakia would be welcome, but of course that was not the time to address it, nor Čaplovič's true point.

Even the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists, the organisation that enforces media standards and ethics and protects the interests of journalists, has not expressed concern over the new draft. Its head, Zuzana Krútka, said that the syndicate is still analysing the bill.

Yet, publishers and numerous journalists view the draft with suspicion, and say it was drafted to whip the media into line, rather than create a standard environment.

"In a pluralistic democracy, laws can not be used to boost 'objectivity' in private media outlets," the OSCE release said. "The Government must not aim to homogenise opinion content or enforce editorial impartiality."

It seems that there are groups that agree with Slovak publishers.

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