THE LETTERS sent by former justice minister Štefan Harabin demanding out-of-court financial settlements from several Slovak media publishers have again stirred debate about media freedom and relations between the governing political parties and media in Slovakia. The deterioration in these relations and the tense atmosphere in the country a year after the 2008 Press Code was adopted were topics The Slovak Spectator discussed with Ivan Godársky, the legal advisor to Memo 98, a non-governmental organization which was established before the 1998 parliamentary elections to monitor and analyse the Slovak media environment, including the coverage of the country’s political scene.
The Slovak Spectator: Have you noted any significant changes in relations between the media and politicians, or the media and state power, during Robert Fico’s government? How would you characterise the past three years from this point of view?
Ivan Godársky: I think relations have definitely deteriorated, especially in the approach by state power towards the media which is personified by Prime Minister Fico, and in my view it is very unfortunate. The attacks on the media by the prime minister surely do not add to the development of society since the media are a standard part of democracy and their role in society is absolutely irreplaceable. It is obvious that the media are, in most cases, critical towards any government. After all, it’s the role of the media to be watchdogs and it’s normal that they are, so to say, after the government. And it’s very unfortunate if a ruling politician is not ready for this and in return attacks the media.
The deterioration of relations is not only about the specific verbal attacks by the prime minister on the media, however, but also about some specific steps taken by the coalition. For example, the coalition has put their own people onto the supervisory boards of the public service media. The ruling coalition and the prime minister himself did not even try to cover this intention of theirs, despite the fact that the public service media should, as their name suggests, serve the public. They are financed from concession fees, and thus from the taxes of all the citizens, not only those who support the ruling coalition. This is where the government again does not understand how the media work and that public service media should, in the first place, be supervised by professionals rather than by people close to the ruling coalition.
This is why [the public service broadcaster] STV is now in trouble and cannot move out of a vicious circle. This is also visible in their news reporting, which is often not as independent and vigorous as it should be.
TSS: How do you assess the objectivity of the news broadcast by the public service Slovak Television (STV)?
IG: Our analyses and the monitoring we have carried out in connection with the presidential election and the European Parliament election show quite clearly something we could characterise as attempts by STV to present ideas close to the ruling coalition. But most of all we believe the problem of STV is that it is somehow worried, it’s sterile, [the reporters] are not trying to open some issues and they don’t dig into the details on issues that have already been opened. They are only trying to fulfil formal objectiveness and they are not attempting to investigate a problem critically and search for causalities, which I believe should be the role of all media and especially the public service ones. In their case we can only see they are cautious and worried and this can be the consequence of pressure that governmental bodies and governmental representatives are putting on public service media.
TSS: The 2008 Press Code also did not improve media – government relations, did it?
IG: Not at all, it only stirred the polemics. I believe that any law, including the press code, should be passed as a result of a certain consensus between all the involved parties and it’s a sad paradox if a law is passed against the will of those whose work it should govern. This seems really absurd to me. The fact that most of the media representatives are against this law is, in itself, an argument against it.
TSS: When the Press Code was passed, there were many concerns about how it would affect the content of the media, especially because of the right of reply that the law authorises. One year later, can you say the concerns were justified?
IG: In the words of the head of the Association of Periodical Press Publishers, Miloš Nemeček, to some extent the concerns were fulfilled but not to the degree expected. The number of complaints and reply requests has increased a lot in all the print media but most of them were refused based on formal reasons. The concerns weren’t fulfilled as massively as expected but the fact remains that the reply requests have come mainly from politicians in state and local administration or from companies and lawyers, which means that the law is not a tool which is to be used by ordinary citizens as it was argued by the culture minister and the government when the law was discussed in the parliament.
20. Jul 2009 at 0:00 | Michaela Terenzani