EDITORIAL

The media's road to hell

IT SEEMS unlikely that Slovakia’s still-new prime minister, Iveta Radičová, is about to start calling journalists idiots or slimy snakes, as was her predecessor’s custom. And though her ruling coalition has not yet killed his controversial Press Code, she has promised to extract the teeth from the legislative monster that Robert Fico left behind.

IT SEEMS unlikely that Slovakia’s still-new prime minister, Iveta Radičová, is about to start calling journalists idiots or slimy snakes, as was her predecessor’s custom. And though her ruling coalition has not yet killed his controversial Press Code, she has promised to extract the teeth from the legislative monster that Robert Fico left behind.

“You can have a perfectly written media law if you are lucky – it’s not the case in Slovakia, but I promise it will be,” Radičová told participants at the annual World Congress of the International Press Institute (IPI) in Bratislava on September 14.

She has undoubtedly made a better impression with her media-related remarks than her predecessor ever did.

Meanwhile, opposition seems to suit Smer boss Fico much better. Since losing power he appears more willing to answer journalists’ questions and has for now abandoned his tendency of refusing to speak to anyone in the media other than his former government’s apple-polishers.

But one should not be taken in by Fico’s sudden willingness to converse with real opponents on political debate programmes, as opposed to the one-man shows he blessed the nation with during the previous four years. Fico hasn’t metamorphosed into a friend of the independent media. It is only that the dynamic between journalists and Fico has changed: he is now in more urgent need of being quoted so that his voice is still heard.

Issuing his organisation’s 9th annual index of press freedom, Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said that “defence of media freedom continues to be a battle – a battle of vigilance in the democracies of old Europe and a battle against oppression and injustice in the totalitarian regimes still scattered across the globe”.

Readers will find a zero mark in the column devoted to murdered journalists in Slovakia’s country profile, while the country ranks 35th in the index, up nine spots from the Fico era. Last year Slovakia ranked 44th: the media freedom watchdog attributed this year’s improvement to the fact that Robert Fico and his buddies are no longer at the state’s wheel. Next year, however, emerging from the “tumultuous era” of the Fico government will not be enough.

While no autocratic fingers are suffocating the voices of journalists in Slovakia, the media have been facing a tough financial situation, one which has pushed some news outlets to make a Hamlet-like decision. Some, in their efforts to survive, have taken the route of hidden advertisements, blurring the line between what is news and what is paid content. Unfortunately, this route, for any news outlet, represents the road to hell.

The Slovak Press Watch blog, a press watchdog, recently reported on private TV news channel TA3’s habit of running paid interviews while neglecting to tell its viewers that not everything they saw on their screens was necessarily independent. But who was paying TA3 for the content? None other than the Ministry of Transport under the government of Robert Fico: the same Fico who occasionally referred to journalists as idiots or even prostitutes. It was the deputy editor-in-chief of the Sme daily, Konštantín Čikovský, who first warned about this peculiar media deal via the social networking site Facebook.

According to Slovak Press Watch, the ministry paid Sk1 million (over €33,000) above TA3’s standard advertising rate for a series of unflagged ‘PR interviews’.

That TA3’s audience ever learned that, for example, 11 interviews with representatives of the Transport Ministry were paid for by state was thanks to the Radičová government’s decision to publish on the internet deals involving public funding. TA3 insists that the deal, which was covered by EU funds, was in line with the law. But of course that does not mean it met ethical standards as well.

In the “truth business”, which is what journalism is supposed to be, the lack of an ethical approach causes much greater harm than inaccuracy, occasional mistakes, poor reporting or failure to meet deadlines. It is what actually makes the media vulnerable when it comes to situations when journalists are required to withstand political pressure.

Now, anyone who inquires about the difficulties of the media community here might conclude that Slovakia lacks a generation of experienced journalists who, along with the skill to put together a news story and the courage to hurl what they believe is the truth in the face of politicians, have life experience and most importantly integrity tested through years of practice.

Instead, it seems that all too often when journalists have served their five or ten years on the job, they need to switch either to a government position or to their own business. It is sometimes hard to blame individuals for making such choices. But only if the media as a whole takes more responsibility for nurturing the younger generation of journalists will it prevent them from picking up practices that should have died out long ago.


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