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Code eludes changes

A WEEK after press freedom watchdog Miklós Haraszti promised the Slovak government a legal analysis of its draft press law, the document has been published; as expected, it is sharply critical of the cabinet's intentions, and recommends that entire sections of the bill be scrapped or rewritten.

OSCE's Miklós Haraszti has not changed his mind in terms of the criticism of Slovakia's draft press code.(Source: SITA)

A WEEK after press freedom watchdog Miklós Haraszti promised the Slovak government a legal analysis of its draft press law, the document has been published; as expected, it is sharply critical of the cabinet's intentions, and recommends that entire sections of the bill be scrapped or rewritten.

Haraszti, the press freedom representative for the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE), is the leading international critic of the bill, which he says falls short of European standards. Since mid-January he has been campaigning against provisions that would give the Culture Ministry authority to levy fines on print media, and that would leave editors almost no grounds on which to refuse publishing politicians' responses to articles.

The Slovak government has said the changes are necessary because the country's existing media legislation, written in 1966, gives no protection to the rights of individuals or to the plurality of public debate. However, the bill's critics have dismissed it as an attempt to punish a domestic press which is largely hostile to Fico's populist-nationalist administration.

On February 14, Haraszti's verbal campaign was seconded by a 10-page written analysis by the London-based Article 19 free expression NGO, which had been commissioned to do the study by the OSCE. The authors called for restrictions on content promoting or trivializing war, hatred or drug use be dropped entirely, and for overlapping remedies for people who felt injured by factual statements to be dovetailed into a single provision (see page 3 for summary of OSCE analysis).

"The draft Act includes a small number of positive protections for freedom of expression," wrote Article 19, "but in certain key aspects fails to conform to accepted international or European standards."

The analysis drew attention to "blatant" excesses such as granting the Culture Ministry the power to impose sanctions, which it said "very significantly exacerbated" problems associated with restricting media content. It also singled out "unacceptably vague" terms in the bill, and said that overall it would have a "chilling effect".

As the analysis was published, however, it emerged that the Robert Fico government had already promised to compromise on the draft act. Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, the head of the Party of European Socialists (PES), a club of European socialist politicians, said that Fico had recently promised him to accommodate the objections of the OSCE and the EU to the bill before it is submitted to a final vote.

Rasmussen made the announcement at a February 14 press conference in Brussels following the PES' decision to readmit Fico's Smer party after an 18-month suspension (see story, page 1). Rasmussen's claim was consistent with a promise made by Deputy Culture Minister Ivan Sečík on February 7, following talks in Bratislava with Haraszti. Sečík said that when he received the OSCE's written recommendations, "we are prepared to take all relevant suggestions into account, and potentially to work them in [to the bill]."

After receiving the legal analysis, Culture Ministry spokesman Jozef Bednár said that "we do not see any reason to comment on the media law until it has passed the committee stage in parliament." The bill passed first reading on February 12 with the votes of 81 out of 150 members in the legislature, and is expected to be put to a third and final vote in March.

Culture Ministry officials said recently that they were considering including a "right to reply" clause in the country's broadcast law, which would require TV and radio stations to broadcast responses to stories by people who felt their honour or rights had been impugned. The proposal was attacked by the political opposition, with Hungarian Coalition Party MP Gyula Bárdos saying that "it would prevent these media from doing their job, and it would be as much of a scandal as the press law."

However, members of the Slovak Association of Publishers told The Slovak Spectator privately that they believed the government would be forced to back down, due largely to the international pressure mounted against the draft press act.

"[Culture Minister Marek] Madarič figured he would be able to withstand the heat without having to compromise, but he clearly miscalculated," said a member of the association, who asked that his name not be used to avoid provoking the government.

OSCE legal analysis - main points

* Section 6 (1) on restriction of content promoting or trivializing hatred, war, drug use etc. should be dropped because it is "unnecessary, vague and overbroad, and members of the executive should never have the power to impose sanctions on media outlets";

* The rights of correction, reply and supplementary information should be "reduced to a single remedy which is engaged only where the claimant demonstrates a justified interest in correcting an incorrect or misleading fact";

* The draft act should prohibit state and other public authorities from claiming a right of reply or correction, not only because this right may be abused, but also because public authorities do not have personality rights;

* The failure of a periodical to print a reply should not be punishable by a court-awarded fine, because the country's civil and criminal codes already allow for damage suits;

* The length of time for publishing a reply should be extended from three to eight days to give editors time to decide if it is warranted;

* The length of replies and corrections should be restricted to that necessary to correct the mistaken or misleading information.

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