ANY GOVERNMENT which heaped praise on the local press would make journalists elsewhere more than a little suspicious. Similarly, any government which is overly critical, touchy or nervous about the media should give rise to doubts among the public. The public should be even more cautious whenever governments start praising specific media outlets or instead label journalists enemies of the nation or threats to national security.
Yet this is exactly what Prime Minister Robert Fico has done: he described the country’s press as a new opposition force which, in his words, is completely biased and harms national and state interests. He used the opportunity presented by the presidential election to explain to his supporters exactly who he sees as his main opponents in what he calls the effort to tackle the global economic crisis.
While in the United States, for example, politicians are currently discussing ways to keep the country’s struggling newspapers afloat, Fico is summoning special press conferences to pan their Slovak equivalents and reveal their supposedly nefarious activities.
United States Senator Benjamin L. Cardin has introduced legislation that would allow struggling newspapers to become non-profit organisations, and hence receive more favourable tax treatment. The senator said he was acting in response to many newspapers – which are among the country’s most prominent watchdogs - filing for bankruptcy or having to drastically trim their budgets in order to survive.
According to Cardin’s official website, his Newspaper Revitalization Act would allow newspapers to operate as non-profits, if they chose to do so. This would mean they would no longer be allowed to make political endorsements, but would still be allowed to freely report on all issues, including political campaigns. Some newspapers of course could hardly use this model - and might in fact regard it as being at odds with their philosophy. But there is a general understanding that the newspaper industry is struggling just like other sectors of society. Slovakia is no different.
Watchdogs in the media have an essential role in society and whenever their teeth are broken the public loses an effective tool with which to control - or at least monitor - the actions of those who govern them.
It would be an act of the utmost naivety to expect Fico to worry about the nation’s watchdogs, as they struggle under the weight of the present crisis, or be in the slightest bit concerned that investigative journalism might lose some force because of cutbacks in the media.
While he might not be concerned about its plight, the Slovak press certainly can’t complain about any lack of interest on the prime minister’s part. There are not many countries in the European Union where the prime minister is in the business of summoning special cabinet sessions and press conferences, just in order to assess the work of the press.
Hopefully there are also not too many countries where the prime minister would threaten the press by stating that the State Security Council would “deal with it” if it did not stop its “harmful activities”.
Fico specifically referred to an interview published in the Hospodárske Noviny financial daily with László Toroczkai, the leader of the Hungarian 64 Counties Movement, which advocates revision of the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon that defined the current borders of Hungary, including its northern border with present-day Slovakia. A newspaper’s choice of interviewee can be questioned, and even criticised, but it should be clear to anyone, not least the prime minister, that it is not the job of the State Security Council to do so. Besides, the local media has not demonstrated any sign of wanting to give legitimacy to any revisionist movement.
Yet Fico says he has detected a “dangerous tendency to give space to Hungarian extremism”.
Strangely, the prime minister’s extremism detector appears to malfunction whenever his coalition partner Ján Slota launches into one of his regular outbursts, insulting - among others - various minorities living on Slovakia’s territory.
Fico has always had a troubled relationship with the press. It was his government which revised the Press Code in a way that prompted criticism from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Now some state officials are toying with the idea of building a press complex for the state-owned media, which would mean moving all of its outlets under one roof – something which, aside from its Orwellian overtones, is a hugely outdated idea.
Fico’s rhetoric is getting sharper not because he has detected any major change in the way the media acts but instead because he is getting ready for next year’s parliamentary elections - and also because, no matter what the circumstances may have been, 44 percent of those who bothered to vote in the presidential elections supported a candidate explicitly backed by the opposition parties.
It is doubtful whether any of these 40-something percent of voters will be backing Fico or his coalition buddies in the parliamentary elections in 2010.
No one questions Robert Fico’s right to comment on the performance of the media. But he is the prime minister of the country, and his disdain for journalists and the menacing words he chooses to express it carry more weight than if they had come from Citizen Fico. National leaders, if they aspire to lead rather than intimidate, need to aim a lot higher.