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What’s next, Mr Fico?

IT WAS predictable enough that politicians who have a somewhat troubled relationship with the media would welcome news of recent tensions between US President Barack Obama and right-wing TV channel Fox News.

IT WAS predictable enough that politicians who have a somewhat troubled relationship with the media would welcome news of recent tensions between US President Barack Obama and right-wing TV channel Fox News.

The fact that Obama, a Democrat, has refused to appear on Fox News or that a White House official described the channel as “opinion journalism masquerading as news” and also “the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party” is likely to please some Slovak public figures who have probably never once watched Fox News and could not care less about the American media. What they have no hesitation in doing, however, is using the report to justify their own frustrations with media closer to home.

Unsurprisingly, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has already done so: he announced he was pleased by the news.

“I, for example, was very pleased by the information that even that example of democracy, US President Obama, banned one television station from asking questions at his press conferences,” Fico said as quoted by the Sme daily.

Perhaps Fico has developed some special interest in studying how other leaders treat the press. But it is more likely that he hasn’t – and that he just picked up the story because he thought it would serve to deflect questions about the fact that Slovakia has dropped to 44th place in the 2009 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. Last year the country was ranked 7th.

Fico is certainly not in the running for the title of most media-friendly politician, if there was such thing in Slovakia; he has, on several occasions, called the press an opposition force and has occasionally referred to journalists as “idiots”.

There is no reason why he should express much affection for the media; nor should he confine his opinion about the press to his friends, or only make comments about the media within the confines of his office.

But as prime minister, he should make sure that under his government the public media does not turn into a mouthpiece for his party or administration. He should also know that it is not only the tabloid press who will sniff around his ruling coalition buddies if they act like that the point of their job is merely to enrich their friends and families at the expense of the electorate.

It is obvious that one of the Fico administration’s most cherished pieces of legislation, the Press Code, with its controversial provision guaranteeing every offended celebrity or politician an unconditional right of reply, was what pushed the country down the press freedom ranking. Culture Minister Marek Maďarič, whose department was responsible for drafting and amending the Press Code, dismissed Reporters Without Borders as ‘biased’.

Often it is the condition of the public-service broadcasters that reflects best how an administration interprets media freedom. If so, the current condition of state-owned Slovak Television hardly presents a very pretty picture of the Fico administration. But for this government it is perhaps an accurate one. Why?

STV Director General Štefan Nižňanský recently banned the broadcast of an investigative report about a ‘social company’ in Bardejov which is receiving subsidies from the Labour Ministry. At first he described the report as ‘sketchy and tabloid-like’ in its approach. In fact, the report showed that the company which had lapped up public subsidies was defunct. After the reporters spoke out and turned to the STV Council, it finally ordered the broadcast of the report. Nižňanský then blamed the media and reporters, suggesting that the whole case was artifically created.

“The reporters will either realise who the general director of STV is, or I will proceed in line with the Labour Code,” said Nižňanský, as quoted by Sme.

Whenever the government has changed in Slovakia, the political group whose turn it has been to run things has typically installed a person at the top of STV who was most likely to serve their interests. This might explain why STV has gone through 13 director generals since 1989.

At a time when political leaders have a tendency to present their monologues as dialogues – preferring, for instance, to appear on televised debate programmes alone, presumably with their inner voice, if they hear any, being their only opponent – one can perhaps seek consolation in the fact that STV has not yet started broadcasting a programme called “What's next, Mr Prime Minister?”

This was the title of a weekly broadcast during the dark days of Vladimír Mečiar’s premiership in the 1990s, starring… you guessed it! In it, Mečiar would lecture the public on subjects he thought they needed to have explained to them a little more clearly. Mečiar is now back in the heart of government. Some of his views about media freedom appear to have returned with him.

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