International editors pan draft Press Code

FEW internationally-known newspapers publish replies to articles on their front pages - This is the result of an informal canvassing of newspaper editors by The Slovak Spectator.

FEW internationally-known newspapers publish replies to articles on their front pages - This is the result of an informal canvassing of newspaper editors by The Slovak Spectator.

Front-page rebuttals is a practice the Robert Fico government is seeking to introduce in Slovakia by requiring periodicals to run replies in the same space as the original article.

The only country in Europe with a similar practice is France, the country with Europe's harshest press freedom laws. Mathieu Cosson, former editor and now director of Le Figaro in France, said he was "unsure the French situation can help you in Slovakia.

"Here, in certain circumstances, a magazine or a daily can feel obliged or be forced by a court to publish an "answer" to an article on the front page. It happens quite often with the tabloids, but it is not frequent for a daily, mostly because we try to publish only true and checked information."

But Cosson was the only editor who admitted to publishing replies on his front page. Most said it had never happened under their watch, and that the obligation to do so would violate press freedom norms.

The respondents were asked to answer four questions:

1. Does your newspaper ever print replies or corrections on its front page?

2. If you do, is it at your own initiative, or at the order of a court?

3. Do you get many requests to print corrections or replies?

4. Do you think the right to reply is consistent with freedom of speech?

Below are their answers:

William Lewis, editor-in-chief, Daily Telegraph, London

1. The Telegraph has not published a reply, correction or apology on its front page at least in the last 20 years. We did - once in the last 20 years - publish a front page reference to an apology which appeared on an inside page.

2. It is unlikely that we would ever agree to a front page correction. We cannot be instructed to do so by a British court, and would only do so as part of a private settlement.

3. We get about two or three a week on average. Most of these are minor or trivial.

4. There is no right of reply as such in the UK, certainly not in statute. What we uphold - under the auspices of the UK's Press Complaints Commission - is a commitment to high journalistic standards, which means that we endeavour to grant the opportunity to reply where this is fair and reasonable.

Matthieu Cosson, director, Le Figaro, Paris

1. Infrequently.

2. Both.

3. -

4. The law on replies and indemnities is very complex. We have very strong protection for privacy issues (even for politicians) and a lot of legislation on how topics like "insults" are treated. Second, on top of this, practice has been changing recently, with politicians for example showing more of their private lives to the public. This of course is changing the way legislation is applied - if you invite the whole press corps to your wedding, making it a non-private event, it's then difficult to argue that your divorce is a private issue.

Károly T. Vörös, editor-in-chief, Népszabadság, Budapest

1. On the front page we publish corrections of erroneous factual information only if a court decision requires us to do so. Over the past four years, since I took over as editor-in-chief, we have done so about twice a year at the most. If we publish responses by the affected parties to our stories at all, we never do it on the front page.

2. We usually publish corrections only if a) we acknowledge that we have printed erroneous factual statements, and in such cases we print the correction of our own free will; or b) the person or party affected by the story initiates a court case on the basis of erroneous factual statements, and a second-level court decides against us.

3. We regularly receive opinion pieces from our readers and select from those. Politicians and institutions that our newspaper has criticized can write a response that may be published on the Forum page, which was invented so we could have a discussion in the newspaper. However, the editor-in-chief always decides what gets published in the newspaper.

4. The "right to reply" is an outrageous abuse of the basic principle of real democracy because it creates the impression that it is deeply democratic, but what it really does is hinder public oversight of those with political, cultural or economic power through the evaluative and analytic work of the press.

Bill Marimow, editor-in-chief, Philadelphia Inquirer

1. I can't recall correcting a story on the front page. I think when there is an important opposing point of view, it is appropriate to reserve ample space for an op-ed piece by the subject of a newspaper's criticism or to provide space for a letter to the editor.

2. If we printed a correction on the front page, it would be our decision, not the decision of a court.

3. We regularly receive requests for corrections from the subjects of our stories, including politicians, businessmen and other readers. This is beneficial because it makes us accountable to the public, and it's a way of auditing our stories for accuracy.

4. I believe strongly that it's important for a newspaper to print corrections as well as amplifications. I think amplifications are called for in cases in which a story may be accurate but incomplete or missing an important nuance. I believe even more strongly that the government should have absolutely no role or right in deciding when a newspaper should correct an error or where that correction should be played in the paper. In my opinion, freedom of speech is a right for all of us, every citizen, not just editors, reporters and publishers. I believe that on issues of public importance, especially those that are controversial and important, a newspaper should make sure that all sides get covered with accuracy, thoroughness and fairness.

Sylvia Stead, deputy editor, Globe and Mail, Toronto

1. No

2. -

3. Yes

4. As an ethical, non-compulsory matter, we often think about a "right of reply" in the choice of letters to the editor, op-eds and corrections and clarifications.

Petr Zavadil, deputy editor, Lidové noviny, Prague

1. No, never.

2. -

3. Occasionally.

4. No, I believe that you either have freedom of expression or you don't. In most European countries we have seen a trend where freedom of expression is being legislatively restricted in the public interest (protection against Nazism, racism and other ideologies, protection of privacy, etc.). With the right of reply the important thing is how this right is enacted in the law. The Czech government in 1999 submitted a draft press law that was not in keeping with European norms on freedom of speech. Journalists and publishers managed to force changes to the draft, as a result of which the current Czech press law is a compromise that permits the existence and functioning of free media. Still, the law has major drawbacks from the point of view both of the media and the people who are named in the news.

Jonathan Kay, managing editor, National Post, Toronto

1. The National Post, like all Canadian newspapers, would print a reply or correction on our front page only under the most extraordinary situations. In almost a decade of publication, I can think of only one or two instances in which it has occurred. The two situations in which we might do this are a) if we made a huge mistake in our reporting, and we wanted to correct the record for our readers; or b) under the terms of a legal agreement to avoid a libel suit.

2. The general practice is to reserve the front page for news. Replies from politicians or umbraged citizens do not constitute news, and so we typically place them on the opinion pages, in the back of our A-section.

3. We get many requests for replies and rebuttals. Some we print. Others we don't. It depends if the points being made are newsworthy, and if we judge that the person in question has something substantive to say in their own defense. In most cases, such replies take the form of a short letter to the editor. But if a politician or some other public figure seeks to rebut one of our stories, we may - at our discretion - permit them to write an 800-word op-ed article, which we would publish under the label "Counterpoint". The length of the original article that is the subject of the rebuttal is immaterial: For instance, we would never permit a writer to write a 2,000-word rebuttal merely because the original article was 2,000 words.

When the newspaper makes factual errors, we publish short corrections on the second page of the newspaper. We also ensure that the corrections are made to the electronic versions of the articles that sit on our web site and in industry databases.

4. In general, I would say that a heavy-handed law dictating to news editors how and where they place rebuttals and replies is inconsistent with freedom of speech. It turns the front page of a newspaper into a sort of private newsletter for anyone who feels they've been criticized in the media. Such a policy has no place in a country that purports to have a free press.

Hakon Borud, managing editor, Tonsbergs Blad, Norway

1. As long as I have been at our publishing house, we have never printed a correction on the front page.

2. If we were going to publish something on the front page, it would be at our own initiative. I cannot imagine a court ordering us to do this, and I would personally find it quite difficult to follow such a court decision.

3. Every day.

4. Yes.

Jackson Diehl, deputy editor, Washington Post

1. No. We've certainly never published a statement of reply by a government official on the front page or anywhere else in the newspaper. We publish corrections, but we determine those ourselves.

2. If we make a factual error, we will publish a correction on our own initiative on our inside pages. There is no legislation obliging papers to print corrections or replies, and I doubt it would be constitutional even if somebody passed it.

3. -

4. For the government to order a newspaper to print something of any kind would be an infringement on freedom of the press, whether this is a right of reply or printing the president's latest speech. Slovakia would place itself outside the norms of Western democracy if it passed a law like that.

Azer H. Hasret, chairman of Central Asian and Southern Caucasian Freedom of Expression Network, Azerbaijan

1. Yes, newspapers here in Baku do publish replies or corrections on the front page, but very rarely. So-called defamation cases are very common here.

2. Usually this comes as a court order.

3. Not often.

4. Of course.

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