IN THE WORLD of Prime Minister Robert Fico, the ideal journalist is a compliant creature. He would not dream of poking his nose into the private affairs of politicians, but instead obediently covers the visit of every foreign politician to Slovakia. He photographs handshakes not backhanders, and his front-page headlines mark “achievements” which excite politicians but have a curiously soporific effect on readers (“Intensification of mutual cooperation”, anyone?). This, at least, is the vision that some government politicians have recently set out for the media in their statements.
Confronting politicians with awkward questions is a definite no-no: why not let bygones be bygones? Far better, for the ideal journalist, to record every cherished word of their leaders, preferably in the form of a verbatim monologue. The ideal editorial office would be professional enough to oblige the governing coalition by re-printing the press releases produced with such admirable diligence by the prime minister’s spokeswoman, Silvia Glendová.
The leaders of the ruling coalition, which has recently stumbled over a crisis or two, seem to have reached a unique concord when it comes to the way they view the media. While a healthy tension is actually desirable in the relationship between politicians and journalists, Smer’s leader Robert Fico, the chairman of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) Vladimír Mečiar, and the leader of the Slovak National Party (SNS) Ján Slota, have had a consistently unhappy relationship with the fourth estate.
The coalition has recently woven a colourful tapestry of justification for describing journalists as – among other things - incompetent, unprofessional, biased, and corrupt.
The most recent crusade launched by the trio came on the heels of media reports that the SNS wanted to abolish the Nation’s Memory Institute (ÚPN), which archives documents about the collaborators and victims of Slovakia’s past oppressive regimes.
Slota’s sudden desire to close the ÚPN developed soon after the media publicised information released by the institute which revealed some inconvenient details about him. According to the files, he had dabbled in a little shoplifting in the early 1970s – from a textile shop in the village of Koš, near Prievidza – before visiting Austria for few days. The SNS was later forced to abandon its plans to terminate the ÚPN, but the coalition then proceeded to shower the media with opprobrium.
Mečiar claimed that the media was guilty of a convenient silence over the owners of some media outlets who, he said, worked with the communist secret police.
“Among the owners of the media almost everyone was a secret police agent,” Fico subsequently declared, in support of Mečiar’s claim, according to the news website Aktualne.sk. Fico in fact specifically named the weekly Plus 7 Dní. “I am not saying that everyone was, but you would certainly find some smashers among them.”
Fico went on to say that this information was pretty much the same quality of reports that the media released about Slota’s past.
Slota meanwhile lashed out at a reporter of TV news channel TA3 calling him a “tasteless guy” who thinks that the “ruling coalition is the worst thing that ever landed from the heavens.”
Yet these sentiments are not a new phenomenon. In an official government press release sent to the state-run TASR newswire on August 8 last year, the prime minister let rip: “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.”
In February, Fico’s message to the media, as quoted by the Webnoviny news server was: “we will not allow the media to spit on us simply because you think you can do whatever you want.”
This degree of rancour is, to put it mildly, an unfortunate state of affairs. Unprofessional conduct happens in the media just as it does in parliament or the cabinet office. But referring to the media as the political opposition, and accusing journalists of being corrupt – to the point of claiming that they routinely accept payment to write stories critical of the government – serves to demonstrate that something has gone very wrong with the governing coalition’s understanding of the media’s role.
Over the past year, journalists have revealed a series of serious political scandals, for example the suspicious transfer of land which resulted in the sacking of the head of the Slovak Land Fund; or the super-generous Defence Ministry cleaning contract, subsequently cancelled after media attention. The media also broke a story about a scandal surrounding the non-governmental organisation Privilégium, which was forced to return subsidies totalling Sk2 million (€59,200) to the state after it was revealed that it had used misleading information to obtain the money. Labour Minister Viera Tomanová, whose ministry approved the subsidy, had worked for the organisation before becoming minister. It was against this background that the ruling coalition passed the new Press Code, which attracted criticism from both local journalists and international organisations. It is now rather hard to escape the conclusion that politicians in power were simply searching for a tool to discipline those they deem corrupt and unprofessional.
The Press Code introduces a highly questionable concept: a complainant’s right to have their reply published even if the original information printed about them was entirely correct. Very few believe that the code will actually produce what the prime minister would seem to judge an “ideal journalist.” Still, it is a gloomy prospect for the media since, with or without the witless comments that politicians insist on making to them, it may well damage the principles on which good journalism is founded.
19. May 2008 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová