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Concerns about free and independent press voiced by US Chargé d’Affaires

IN CENTRAL Europe today members of the press no longer face the prospect of arrest or official censorship and media representatives do not fear government-sanctioned disappearance or murder, as journalists do in many countries, but reporters and their editors sometimes feel they must practice self-censorship when covering certain issues or individuals, Chargé d’Affaires of the US Embassy in Bratislava Keith Eddins told a panel discussion on June 19 which focused on the necessity of a free and independent press in a democratic society.

IN CENTRAL Europe today members of the press no longer face the prospect of arrest or official censorship and media representatives do not fear government-sanctioned disappearance or murder, as journalists do in many countries, but reporters and their editors sometimes feel they must practice self-censorship when covering certain issues or individuals, Chargé d’Affaires of the US Embassy in Bratislava Keith Eddins told a panel discussion on June 19 which focused on the necessity of a free and independent press in a democratic society.

“Television news is not as free and independent as it could be, given that your operating funds are often tied to state budgets or that you rely upon advertisers who may not appreciate hard-hitting investigative journalism,” Eddins told the digital video conference between participants in both Bratislava and Košice. “And we know you face real problems with some officials in your country who seek to intimidate the press. There are also private attempts to stifle independent inquiry. And courts may find that a metaphor is somehow libellous.”

The conference was hosted by Consul Simon Hankinson at the InfoUSA Center in Košice and occurred under the auspices of the 15th International Festival of Local Television.

The chargé d’affaires’ remarks were delivered just weeks after the Slovak media reported that Justice Minister Štefan Harabin had sent out-of-court settlement proposals to the publishers of the Sme, Pravda and Plus Jeden Deň dailies and to the Plus 7 Dní weekly. Harabin wrote in his demand for compensation that the periodicals had published articles that had severely damaged his good reputation and honour and requested out-of-court payments totalling €600,000 to be sent to his personal account within 40 days for the non-pecuniary damages he alleges he has suffered.

The International Press Institute (IPI), during a fact-finding mission to Bratislava earlier this year, voiced concern that some Slovak judges are demanding disproportionate damages in civil actions and that the judiciary itself is not acting in an independent manner.

“Curiously, despite the availability of multiple remedies under the media law, many public figures have decided not to utilise it, choosing instead to file libel suits and requesting very high monetary awards,” Eddins said in his address. “And it is this trend that has begun to cast a chill on a free press. In recent years, in Slovakia alone, at least a dozen major awards totalling €700,000 have been made to public figures.”

Eddins suggested that the embassy is even aware of demands that do not point to individual articles or allege a specific journalistic error, but rather make a generalised assertion that whole issues are somehow off-limits to examination by the press.

“We make no judgment on the merits of any individual case of alleged libel,” said Eddins. “Slovak law allows such libel awards and that is certainly within the bounds of international norms. But we recognise that the broader impact of such use of libel suits against an independent media can be intimidating – and potentially inconsistent with various international commitments to foster a free and independent media.”

According to Eddins, such threats often do have a chilling effect on the ability of journalists to pursue and investigate controversial issues of public interest.

Eddins has also confirmed that the US embassy closely follows these developments.

“The US follows all events and actions that may negatively impact democratic institutions at home and internationally,” Eddins told The Slovak Spectator. “A vibrant and independent media is vital to democracy, and therefore we watch any actions that may limit press freedom.”

“Yes” was Eddins’ answer when asked whether issues such as out-of-court settlement demands sent to media outlets were likely to make it into the annual Human Rights Report published by the US State Department.

The chargé d’affaires also shared his own experience with the Slovak press suggesting that the reporters he has dealt with ask hard-hitting, incisive questions. Many of these journalists are not afraid to challenge poor logic, he added.

“I have seen Slovak reporters publish stories that were not popular with the public – like that of police abuse of Roma children in Kosice,” Eddins said. “But those reports appear to be leading to action and reform. The police officers who were captured on tape abusing the Roma children have been fired and are now facing likely criminal prosecution. And the government has committed itself to improved human rights training for all Slovak police. Without a free press, it might still be business as usual.”

Eddins also referred to extensive media coverage of the so-called “bulletin-board tender”, which informed the public about what was subsequently found to be an improper tender involving use of EU funds and the media coverage that a political ethics watchdog, the Fair-Play Alliance, received when pursuing a complaint with the European Commission in Brussels.

Concerns about press freedom in Slovakia were noted in the 2008 Human Rights Report prepared by the US Department of State.

“Last year, the United States government made no secret of its very real concerns about the media law that was then under consideration,” said Eddins. “Although we applauded the decision to drop provisions that that would have given the government authority to levy fines on publishers for a broad range of statements, the final law contains a broad ‘right of reply’ clause.”

This clause enables individuals who believe their honour has been damaged by a printed statement – even if it is accurate and factual – to request their response to be printed by the media with the same length and placement as the original article.

“According to Slovak editors, this provision has led to costly and time-consuming legal and editorial reviews, but – I’m pleased to say – not as much self-censorship as many had feared,” Eddins said. “Most requests are denied because they don’t comply with the legislation. And most are not made by the ‘regular’ citizens the law was supposed to protect.”

Eddins believes that an inherent tension exists between government and a free press, a watchdog press, and that honest, aggressive and hard-hitting journalism can energise the general public.

“And sooner or later such reports will lead to changes in government policies or an insistence that existing policies or laws be respected,” Eddins said.

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