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EDITORIAL

Fico's post-Press Code era has begun

PRIME Minister Robert Fico has proudly heralded the arrival of the post-Press Code era in Slovakia.

PRIME Minister Robert Fico has proudly heralded the arrival of the post-Press Code era in Slovakia.

"This should be an end to an era when the media wrote whatever they wanted without any responsibility," Fico told the public service broadcaster Slovak Radio on March 29. And he is right.

Things have indeed now changed for the Slovak media, with the approval of amendments to the Press Code, despite wide-ranging and sustained criticism from local media, international media, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, political and media analysts and the country's opposition.

The freedom of the press is one of the most sensitive democratic indicators in any country and no regime or government has ever won much credit for disciplining the media.

Fico may honestly believe he has done some great service to the nation by manufacturing a press code which opens the door to what is in fact a highly questionable concept: a complainant's right to have their reply published even when the original information printed about them was entirely correct. Newspapers will be legally obliged to print, in the same place as the original article, replies from those who feel offended or hurt - or perhaps even faintly dissatisfied - by anything a newspaper publishes about them.

Fico is doing an immense disservice to the readers since he has potentially opened the floodgates for replies of all those slighted, maligned, insulted or irritated to flood the pages of newspapers with responses which cannot be changed by the editor, and which in some cases might be unintelligible, insulting or incorrect.

Two weeks ago this newspaper published a survey of senior newspaper editors from around the world. Only one said he worked under any similar legal constraints (but that they were never enforced); all of them agreed that they were unacceptable and that they would refuse to work under them. If the rest of the world regards a Slovak-style right of reply as unacceptable - and never enforces it even where it does exist - why is it needed here?

For the prime minister it represents what he calls an "equivalence of arms" between the public and media. Perhaps his terminology is not accidental: Fico has stated repeatedly that he feels that the media are his opponents, and no doubt regards its 'guns' as ranged against him.

Yet, an "equivalence of arms" is a dangerous metaphor for recent developments in Slovakia's media environment, especially from someone who often takes the media's attentions very personally, to the point of seeing a conspiracy against his government behind every story.

The media website Medialne.sk keeps a running tally of (to date) around 40 releases by the press department of the Cabinet Office and the Smer party excoriating the Slovak media and routinely labelling journalists unprofessional and biased.

The tone of many of these statements resembles that of a media release distributed via the TASR newswire on August 8, to the widespread amusement of journalists.

"The prime minister considers it to be absolutely annoying the way some media try to gain information about him at any price," reads the official statement. "It is annoying and disgusting if journalists are sneaking in the wet grass like slimy snakes, as repeatedly happened today in the early hours, while trying to take a picture of the prime minister skating in public while hiding from no one, but they [journalists] behave as though they are taking a picture of someone who has been committing a serious crime during the night."

Is this the weapon Fico has in mind? Will the media be obliged to print such pearls of politicians' wisdom?

Fico's press department wrapped up a recent visit by the Russian Prime Minister Victor Zubkov in a rather bizarre fashion: by releasing a statement which panned the media for not covering the visit in the way Fico would have liked. The prime minister felt slighted that his talks with Zubkov did not receive the extensive coverage he clearly believed they justified, in particular those pertaining to long-term gas supply contracts and the construction of a broad-gauge railway from Russia through Slovakia.

These are the issues that dominate the world and are even more important than the press bill, Fico declared, adding that "when you go the European Council, nobody will talk to you about the OSCE or the Press Code."

What a pity that the prime minister just doesn't seem to get it.

The major Slovak dailies which belong to the Association of Periodical Press Publishers have already listed their objections to the Press Code in a document, "Seven Sins of the Press Code," which they ran on the otherwise blank front pages of their publications on March 27.

On April 11, after The Slovak Spectator went to press, the dailies plan to protest by turning their cover pages into a "death notice," according to Medialne.sk. They also plan to come out until June 2008, when the Press Code should become valid, with a black band on their front pages to show their mourning over the new code.

The era that Fico heralded seems set to become the era of blank cover pages, death notices and black bands: a pretty sorry prospect for both journalists and readers.

Fico said that the press code is to provide protection to people from the harm that the media can cause. But the harm his government is doing to press freedom might be much larger and have much wider implications for Slovak society.

To reprise Fico's own penchant for military metaphors, the government may have achieved a short-term "equivalence of arms", but at the longer-term risk of being hoist with its own petard.

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