The blank front page talks

A BLANK newspaper page is always a serious sign. It represents the silence which emerges after arguments are not heard and discussion has been quelled by the arrogance of power.

A BLANK newspaper page is always a serious sign. It represents the silence which emerges after arguments are not heard and discussion has been quelled by the arrogance of power.

In any civilized society a blank newspaper page, providing it isn't a failure of printing technology, delivers a powerful message through the absence of words, showing that something has gone terribly wrong in the relationship between the media and political power.

After a tug-of-war with the Culture Ministry over the latest draft Press Code, the publishers of Slovakia's main daily newspapers decided to keep their front pages blank, printing only a brief document entitled 'Seven sins of the Press Code".

The newspapers - Sme, Pravda, Hospodárske Noviny, Nový Čas, Plus Jeden Deň and Új Szó, which are all members of the Periodical Press Publishers' Association - gave a clear 'no' to the government's plans to recast the law covering the print media.

The last time publishers used blank pages to protest about the way political power was being used in Slovakia was under the administration of Vladimír Mečiar, who work tirelessly to discipline a media which simply asked too many uncomfortable questions and printed too many stories that failed to reflect the former prime minister's view of himself.

Back in 1995, Slovakia's major dailies printed a note on their otherwise blank front pages in protest at the intentions of the Mečiar government to increase value-added tax on periodicals, a rather too-obvious move to bleed the impertinent media. The same happened again in 1997, in opposition to another proposal to hike VAT on periodicals to 23 percent.

After more than a decade, publishers again say that the government - in which, it is worth noting, the very same Vladimír Mečiar, as chairman of one of the coalition parties, continues to pull strings - is trying to interfere in editorial autonomy.

It's almost as if, along with Vladimír Mečiar's return to power as part of Robert Fico's ruling coalition, some of his old habits have returned from their rightful home: the political rubbish dump.

Mečiar, in a reaction entirely in keeping with his party's traditions, told Sme Online that the protest was ridiculous.

"What effect has it had? None," said Mečiar. "If the publishers want to fill their empty pages they can extend it to the whole issue."

Fico and Mečiar certainly share some of the same attitudes towards the press. But Fico doesn't really need Mečiar to bash the media and journalists since he's quite capable of doing a pretty effective job by himself.

According to the publishers, what Fico and his government are trying to do is provide government officials, businessmen, public figures, celebrities and pretty much anyone else with an axe to grind the means to flood the pages of the media with replies to stories with which they happen to disagree.

The publishers warn that this right to reply could be used even where printed information was entirely true; that the right to correction could be demanded even if the published information maligned no-one. Absurdly, the newspaper would then be barred from responding to such replies (no matter how inaccurate or offensive).

The draft Press Code also allows for double sanctions, obliging papers to print both a correction and a reply. At the same time as being forced to print replies (at pain of a hefty fine), publishers would remain responsible for those which broke the law or offended public morality. Naturally, publishers fear an endless - and growing - cascade of demands for counter-replies.

A front page in Prime Minister Fico's 'brave new world' of press freedom might resemble a journalistic nightmare: an investigative story - say, on land scams - giving rise to a melée of unedited, unverified, unedited or even downright false replies, with the editor powerless to prevent their publication.

Many journalists in this country still remember a time when newspapers were a reflection of the 'reality' portrayed by just one party; a time when editors were forced to print text they could not touch, and simply served as small cogs in the huge state printing machine.

Governments have now turned to more sophisticated means to force journalists to hold their tongues: they no longer jail them, blow up their cars or raid publishing houses. But that doesn't mean that their new methods are innocent or that they do no harm to press freedom.

Fico, who has repeatedly referred to the media as 'the political opposition', will find that anti-media crusades tend to rebound on their perpetrators. The current draft Press Code opens a chasm between the Slovak government and other democratic governments whose passion for the press might not be much greater than Fico's but who nonetheless understand that restricting its freedom would debase them to a point where criticism from international organisations would become both loud and justified.

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