MiklÓs Haraszti gave a spirited performance at a Culture Ministry press conference on February 7. He threw everything but the kitchen sink at Slovakia's draft press law - not just logic, but also ridicule, sarcasm, and even a bad joke. But none of it made any impression on the humorless man sitting beside him, Deputy Culture Minister Ivan Sečík.
Sečík sat imperturbably as Haraszti, the freedom of speech representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), attacked his work, occasionally letting his frustration run away with his tongue. He poured irony over the bill's exhaustive listing of the kinds of hatred it will be illegal to promote - the now infamous article 6: "The law defines a Guinness-Book-of-Records 18 types of hatred. It was very creative [of the Culture Ministry] to produce such a list of all the kinds of hatred that exist on earth." He aimed more sarcasm at the much-criticized proposal to give the culture minister the power to judge what media articles break the law, as well as to levy fines: "I understand the noble intentions behind these new powers given to the minister." And on hearing that the proposal for article 6 had come from the Justice Ministry, Haraszti turned his guns in Štefan Harabin's direction as well: "Even the minister of justice has to understand that freedom of speech means there can be no wish list for politicians to fight content they find objectionable."
In a sense, the talks between the two men couldn't have gone any differently. Haraszti is Hungary's answer to Václav Havel, a former dissident, samizdat editor, and politician during the formative years of post-1989 democracy in Budapest. Sečík is almost his mirror opposite, having served the communist regime in Czechoslovakia as a media censor. And so it seemed at times that Haraszti's objections to the press law were less rooted in his past as a journalist than in his experience of fighting communism. "You don't want to have a law almost 20 years after the old times that gives the culture minister the right to decide what content is good and what is bad," he said at one point.
And that, in a nutshell, is the main problem with this draft press law - it reeks of communism, of the Fico government's desire to control public discourse and stifle dissent. It is pointless for either side to cite examples in foreign legislation - the worth of the Slovak measure can only be judged in the Slovak context. And that context includes not only tense relations between the prime minister and the media, a government with authoritarian tendencies, and a corps of journalists who are highly sensitive to censorship - above all it includes four decades of totalitarian rule.
If the Fico government really expects people to believe the bill was designed to "protect individual rights and the plurality of opinions" (Sečík), then it must remove rules that would achieve the opposite. Because we all know what happens when you allow the government to decide what newspapers can write.
18. Feb 2008 at 0:00 | Commentary by Tom Nicholson