TURNING a deaf ear to publishers' objections, President Ivan Gašparovič signed the controversial Press Code into law on April 25.
The law, which was the responsibilty of Culture Minister Marek Maďarič, was passed on April 9 despite a wave of domestic and international criticism. It takes effect on June 1, 2008.
"Mr. President decided to sign the law because he didn't find anything in it that was at odds with the constitution or democratic principles," presidential spokesman Marek Trubač told the ČTK newswire.
Gašparovič is convinced that the law will have a positive effect on the Slovak print media because it extends the right to reply to the public, rather than just publishers and newspaper owners, Trubač told Slovak Radio.
The right to reply had been among the major concerns expressed by the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) and the Association of Publishers of Periodical Press.
The Press Code grants a right of reply even in cases where the information printed is correct, and the right to a correction even if the published information is not libellous.
The publishers also argued that the code allows for double sanctions, namely being obliged to print both a correction and a reply.
The Association of Publishers of Periodical Press is convinced that the Press Code infringes press freedom in Slovakia.
Gašparovič met the publishers on April 21 to hear their objections. According to people present at the meeting, he proposed giving the code six months to see how it works and whether it really limits press freedom.
The fact that the president signed the law did not come as a surprise to Miloš Nemeček, chairman of the Association of Publishers of Periodical Press. However, Nemeček added that the publishers warned the president that the law includes provisions that verge on unconstitutional.
"The code [as it is now] negates the societal role of the media," Nemeček told The Slovak Spectator. According to Nemeček, a six-month trial period is simply unrealistic and he expects opposition members of parliament to file a complaint with the Constitutional Court.
"Of course we will support them professionally," he said.
OSCE press freedom representative Miklós Haraszti has been critical of the law since its inception. On April 10, he said it was disappointing that the OSCE's recommendations regarding the right of reply had not been incorporated into the final version of the law.
"I deeply regret the situation that the new Press Act will create for the Slovak media," Haraszti told journalists. "Slovakia is forcing its media to become a subject of political give and take. This goes against the country's international commitments to protect the freedom of its media."
Haraszti has also been critical of the controversial right to reply.
"It is not difficult to imagine where this will lead - newspapers getting flooded with replies from individuals or political forces unable to accept criticism, even when the criticism is well founded," Haraszti stated in an official press release.
In a recently published Press 2008 survey by the Freedom House, non-governmental watchdog agency, Slovakia scored 22 points, down from 20 points last year, on a 195-country chart, with 1 representing the country with the most press freedom.
While the organisation said that press freedom in Slovakia is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected, it has also noticed the recent developments around the Press Code.
"In 2007, [Slovak] legislators drafted the new Press Act; press freedom advocates criticised several provisions, including restrictions on content, the powers of intervention granted to the state executive, and the right of correction and mandatory access to media by interested parties (with no possibility of editorial intervention in terms of content or space)," Freedom House said in a release.