EDITORIAL

When 'bias' isn't bias

SOME decisions made by Slovakia’s broadcast licensing authority would be quite entertaining if they were not being made by a regulatory body that wields considerable power over the country’s electronic media. If one thought that the highlight of the licensing council’s recent performances was its suggestion that a couple of on-air sentences spoken in English on a Slovak TV show was a violation of Slovakia’s controversial State Language Act, the council has now shown it can do even “better”.

SOME decisions made by Slovakia’s broadcast licensing authority would be quite entertaining if they were not being made by a regulatory body that wields considerable power over the country’s electronic media. If one thought that the highlight of the licensing council’s recent performances was its suggestion that a couple of on-air sentences spoken in English on a Slovak TV show was a violation of Slovakia’s controversial State Language Act, the council has now shown it can do even “better”.

A talk show broadcast on November 16 last year devoted to the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, marking the end of the communist regime in Slovakia, has now become the newest thorn in the council’s side – which, incidentally, counts as a member a person suspected of plagiarism.

This month the licensing council penalised JOJ Plus, a private TV channel, for a show intended to reflect on the meaning of the Velvet Revolution. The council’s reason? The show was biased, it said. The host of the programme, Štefan Hríb, had invited two people active during the revolution, the former editor of Sme, Milan M. Šimečka, and Peter Zajac, one of the founders of the People Against Violence (VPN) movement – a group which gained considerable political influence after the revolution. The TV audience was also shown a documentary featuring other voices speaking about the Velvet Revolution.

“According to the council, there was a violation of [the principle] of objectivity and impartiality,” the Sme daily wrote, quoting Luboš Kukliš, the head of the council.

In order to penalise the programme, the council had to classify the show as “politically-commented news” to which stricter fairness rules apply. Hríb told Sme that his guests on the show were sharing their personal memories about November 17, 1989, and the first days after the fall of the communist regime. What counter-balance did the council think was necessary: stories retold by former Communist apparatchiks who diligently censored even the evening cartoons for children? Had the broadcaster missed some opportunity to invite a reformed communist, who after a surface metamorphosis has again returned to a top political position?

But here in Slovakia it is the politicians who decide who sits on the council to watch over Slovakia’s broadcast media. Perhaps then, these people and the decisions they make is reflective of the preferences of the leaders of the current state government.

The council also sent a warning to Rádio Expres on May 11 for what it called a violation of objectiveness in the station’s reporting about the reconstruction of a bathroom used by Supreme Court President Štefan Harabin, Sme reported. Harabin would certainly approve of the council’s decision, if for no other reason than because he has already sued the private radio station over the story and is demanding €200,000 in damages in the name of the Supreme Court.

The sad thing is that for many reading about yet another lawsuit filed by Harabin against a media outlet, it no longer comes as shocking news because he has done it so many times before. And one might ironically say that he is simply nurturing Slovakia’s new political folklore, if the threat were not so serious.

Harabin intimidates the media with his letters asking for out-of-court settlements and his lawsuits. And this is not only the assessment of local media but also of international observers. The Slovak arm of the International Press Institute stated that the “the latest lawsuit filed against Rádio Expres for its broadcast of an imprecise report taken from the daily press and the demanded €200,000 in damages is a disgraceful attempt to misuse institutions of the law against the fundamentals of freedom of expression”. The radio station had quoted from a story written by the Pravda daily, whose publisher is also being sued by Harabin for €200,000.

When Prime Minister Robert Fico brought the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia and its boss Vladimír Mečiar back to power, it was obvious the lid of a political Pandora’s Box was being opened – even though observers at the time could only make vague guesses at what this would directly mean for Slovak society. Today we know. Mečiar resurrected Harabin and it seems he will stick around and keep suing the media much longer than Mečiar will remain in politics.

The “biased” guests of the Lampa programme have most probably reflected that there are no overnight miracles and that after the blinding lights of the revolution grow dimmer and society must walk the long journey into political maturity, the nation at certain times and in certain areas relapses and lets undesirable phenomena survive. But it is doubtful that 20 years ago they would even think it imaginable two decades after the revolution that a discussion programme would be penalised because no “political” opponent was there to weep over the fall of the communist regime. But then again, they probably didn’t think the country would have politicians using the media as their personal cash machine either.


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