TIME has not brought a thaw to the government’s chilly view of the press and its controversial press legislation enacted last year. Quite the contrary: in response to a story published in one of Slovakia’s tabloids, the country’s prime minister is pondering further changes to make the law even tougher. Observers doubt that changes of the sort that Prime Minister Robert Fico envisions would be passed by parliament but they say the rhetoric used by the prime minister justifies some concern.
On September 16, Slovakia’s Constitutional Court accepted a request by a group of 42 opposition parliamentary deputies to review whether Slovakia’s press code adopted in 2008 conforms to the country’s constitution.
“I would welcome it if we could amend the [time] periods for publishing a reply,” Prime Minister Fico said at a special press conference, as quoted by the TASR newswire. “Currently it is three days, but it needs to be changed to two days or one day.”
Fico said he would propose to shorten this period to 24 hours during the upcoming election campaign, “when politicians really don't have the chance to defend themselves”.
Moreover, the prime minister also suggested that fines should not be imposed only after a court decision but rather be embedded directly in the law and come as an automatic response to any failure to comply with the law.
“In other words, if the tabloid does not publish a response either in two days or within 24 hours, the appropriate fine will be levied,” Fico said, arguing that waiting for a court decision over a complaint might take two or three years.
The proposals are Fico’s response to a story run by The Plus 7 Dní weekly, which suggested that Fico is paying a monthly tuition fee of €900 for his son's education at a private school. Prime Minister Fico said he can prove that he is only paying €89 for the schooling.
Currently, the Press Code grants the right to correction and the right to reply to anyone who feels that their honour and dignity were harmed by a published article; they need to request that their reply be printed within 30 days of the publication date while publishers must meet the request and print the reply within three days of receiving the application, for dailies and in their next issue for other periodicals. The Press Code provides the right of reply even when the published information is correct and the right to a correction even if the published information is not libelous. Fines can go up to €4,980. The Association of the Publishers of Periodical Press said it was surprised by the conduct of the prime minister.
“The prime minister, during the debates over the Press Code, stressed several times that this hould be a law for citizens, not for politicians,” the association said. “However, now he clearly shows that the law should serve the politicians.”
According to the Sme daily, the head of the parliamentary faction of the Slovak National Party (SNS), Rafael Rafaj, is sympathetic to the prime minister’s proposal and the SNS itself has said that it is already working on an initiative to have the Press Code amended, so they are open to negotiations with the Prime Minister and his party.
The Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) has not publicly responded to Fico’s statements.
Political scientist Grigorij Mesežnikov said, however, that the political manoeuvring is more of a game for votes and that it is hardly imaginable that something like this would pass parliament.
“I am not surprised that he attacked the media again but considering what circumstances have accompanied it, I think he was trying to brush the case which evoked it under the carpet,” Mesežnikov told The Slovak Spectator. “Regardless of whether he pays €90 or €900, both options are bad for a social-democratic politician who always talks about how important it is to support state programs in all areas and then he in fact does not send his child to a state school but rather to a selective foreign school.”
Fico has also said that the tabloids have once again crossed the line and he also called on lectronic media to stop promoting tabloids.
“Because in the same way that I sue Plus 7 Dní and other tabloids, I will use all legal means to protectmyperson from electronic media that purvey such advertising,” Fico said, as quoted by TASR.
On September 17, the staterun public broadcaster Slovak Television told TASR that it currently has no business relations with ‘7 Plus’, the publisher of Plus 7 Dní.
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Miklós Haraszti, said he hopes that a revision to the press code in the way that Fico has envisioned it would never become a reality in Slovakia, the Sme daily wrote.
Haraszti described Fico’s idea as appearing dangerous but since he had not yet received an official copy of the proposal his office would not take any action.
“If such a revision to the law is submitted to parliament, we will officially intervene,” said Haraszti, as quoted by Sme. “It would be an additional serious worsening of the status of publishers and their right to decide on the content of their publications.”