IT’S OFFICIAL: Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, has announced that journalists from the country’s leading newspapers are idiots. “Idiot” turned into one of most oft-repeated terms of an October 29 press conference in which Fico challenged the print media’s interpretation of his recent trip to Vietnam. It became clear during the conference that he objected violently to the way the local media had covered the trip and awarded reporters from the dailies Sme, Pravda, Hospodárske Noviny and Nový Čas with the badge of “idiot”.
It could, of course, have been worse. Fool, imbecile, moron, nincompoop, ninny, nitwit, simpleton or softhead (and worse) are also available to anyone who decides to descend to the cellar of manners and select some names to use. Alternatively, cretin, goof, jerk and prat could also be employed by any politician looking to style himself on Fico.
Amusing though the spectacle might have appeared, the sight (or sound) of a politician using a press conference - the purpose of which is to communicate significant messages - to instead call journalists idiots is actually pretty sad. It not only vulgarises the public discourse but also speaks volumes about Fico’s attitude towards the media.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word idiot as an offensive expression to describe either a “person affected with extreme mental retardation” or a “foolish and stupid person”.
No matter how critical or how unfair the prime minister’s treatment at the hands of journalists, the media has never called Robert Fico an idiot.
“You boorishly and idiotically attack the government of the Slovak Republic,” Fico began his tirade against the assembled journalists. “The communist press was more forthcoming to dissidents then you are forthcoming to a democratic government.”
He then turned to more specific accusations: “Only an idiot from Nový Čas could say that I went to Vietnam to chase labour back to Slovakia and that I do not pay attention to the 10-percent unemployment in Slovakia.”
Next it was Pravda’s turn: “Everyone [i.e. other countries] is in Vietnam. We arrived there last and now this idiot writes that I went there to make business for J&T [a financial group].”
Pravda, in its coverage of the prime minister’s trip to Vietnam, did suggest that Fico was promoting a billion-crown deal for a company controlled by J&T despite having declared earlier this year that he likes financial groups just as “the goat likes the knife.”
SES Tlmače, which is controlled by J&T, is seeking to win an order to supply boilers for a thermal power plant in the Vietnamese province of Tra Vinh worth Sk45 billion (€1.5 billion), Pravda wrote.
Yet, even if Fico felt the association was unfair and wrong, there were hundreds of other ways to address the issue - if he had wanted to. Arguments are always stronger than insults. A firm but still a polite response can teach better lessons than a demonstration of ignorant force.
Fico’s partner in the ruling coalition, Ján Slota, infamous for his repeated offensive statements at the expense of Hungarians, Roma and other minorities, must take a significant share of the blame for polluting Slovakia’s public discourse. But Fico, instead of providing some decent balance to Slota, has now descended to his level.
Of course there is unprofessional conduct in the media and there are journalists who sometimes fail to do their jobs properly, just as there are politicians who forget why they have been elected to office. But calling journalists idiots does harm to the prime minister’s image, and perhaps in a more serious way than some of the pieces written by those same journalists.
Just one day after calling journalists from the leading dailies idiots he announced that his policy of regulation could save Slovakia from the financial crisis, and that only two groups oppose him: the opposition and journalists.
The Association of European Journalists responded that “unfortunate is the politician who always has need to create enemies so that through them he can demonstrate his purported courage and greatness.” The association also said that all this does is to divert attention from the real problems.
Fico also restated, as quoted by the SITA newswire, that he had deliberately called journalists “idiots” and that he will always have the courage to openly talk about “media barbarism”. But many had already concluded that Fico’s attacks on the fourth estate were not the result of temper but instead part of his long-term strategy towards the media.
Something appears to be very wrong with the governing coalition’s understanding of the media’s role and Fico’s recent statements will do nothing to change this impression. The prime minister’s statements and the way he chose to expose what he calls “barbarism” are not worthy of a modern democratic politician.
Words can turn into swords, open up wounds that will never heal and cause irreparable damage. In politics and diplomatic discourse so much is decided on the verbal battlefield. A prime minister, any prime minister, simply has to know better than to call journalists idiots.