Will the Press Code lose its seven sins?

TWO years ago the major Slovak daily newspapers all ran the same story on their front pages: a single, identical article entitled 'The Seven Sins of the Press Code'. It set out the objections of the newspapers' publishers to legislation cooked up by the government of Robert Fico, which they argued would seriously affect the freedom of the Slovak print media. The law was passed all the same, but after a four-party centre-right coalition led by Iveta Radičová replaced the Fico administration following parliamentary elections this summer the new government included a revamp of the troubled law in its official programme. Now the Press Code is about to get a makeover – but some in the media community had been hoping for rather more substantial reform.

TWO years ago the major Slovak daily newspapers all ran the same story on their front pages: a single, identical article entitled 'The Seven Sins of the Press Code'. It set out the objections of the newspapers' publishers to legislation cooked up by the government of Robert Fico, which they argued would seriously affect the freedom of the Slovak print media. The law was passed all the same, but after a four-party centre-right coalition led by Iveta Radičová replaced the Fico administration following parliamentary elections this summer the new government included a revamp of the troubled law in its official programme. Now the Press Code is about to get a makeover – but some in the media community had been hoping for rather more substantial reform.

Culture Minister Daniel Krajcer and his team have submitted a draft revision to the Press Code which, among other things, will trim the scope of public officials to use the right to reply currently defined by the law.

If it is passed – and given the Radičová government's majority, it is expected to – public officials will no longer be able to insist on a printed reply to stories about them providing these pertain to the performance of their public function. However, public officials will still enjoy a right of reply as private individuals; Krajcer says that this is in line with the Slovak Constitution.

Newspaper publishers say that Krajcer’s revision brings improvements, if not all the recommendations that they have demanded. They believe the revision will sail through parliament. Pavol Múdry of the International Press Institute (IPI) told The Slovak Spectator that Krajcer’s proposal meets the criteria of a modern European media law, while the recently elected chairman of the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists (SSN), Peter Kubínyi, opines that Krajcer’s proposal lacks the element of international review.

The culture minister says that his changes to the Press Code, which are classed as a minor revision and should come into effect as of June 1, 2011, remove shortcomings revealed by the present code’s application during the past two years. The revision will not apply to court proceedings already in progress.

“We know that although public officials and politicians claimed [at the time the code was passed] that they would not apply these rights, this simply has not happened,” Krajcer said, as quoted by SITA newswire, adding that international documents and decisions of the European Court for Human Rights define public officials' rights in this area as being lower.

According to Krajcer, every politician and public official freely decides whether to enter politics or public life and by accepting such roles they should be aware that their rights are diminished compared to those of regular citizens.

“Another problem is the one area that is not directly linked to this legislation; and these are unfortunately the decisions of courts,” Krajcer said, adding that courts were, in some cases, very quick to impose some very high penalties.

Included in the amendment is one change that means publishers and newswires will not be responsible for the content of information provided to them by public bodies as well as constitutional officials. At the same time, they would no longer be held responsible for the veracity of information published in the corrections, replies or additional announcements they are required to make under the terms of the Press Code.

The draft also removes publishers' duty to print in the first issue of each periodical a statement declaring its ownership structure, because this already happens as part of the registration process; at the same time it drops the sanctions related to registration that were introduced in the previous code, SITA wrote.

Krajcer’s draft also drops fines for failing to publish corrections, replies or additional statements and offers better definitions of when it is possible to request publication of a reply: in the case of false, incomplete allegations, or ones that distort the truth; where stories damage the reputation, dignity or privacy of individuals or the name or good reputation of a legal entity.

Currently, the Press Code grants the right to a 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, and publishers must meet the request and print their reply within three days of receiving the application for dailies, and in the next issue for other periodicals.

The Press Code provides the right to reply even when the published information is correct and the right to a correction even if the published information is not libellous. Publishers risk a fine up to €4,980 if they refuse to print a reply.

The Slovak Parliament passed the controversial revision to the Press Code in April 2008 despite a shower of criticism from media experts, publishers and international bodies such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Múdry of the IPI said that the Ministry of Culture consulted on the changes with media organisations and publishers at a professional level.

“I consider the shortcomings of [former culture minister Marek] Maďarič’s law to have been removed,” Múdry said.

Kubínyi of the SSN said that the proposal lacks any form of international review and that when the syndicate was working on its own proposals for reform it included a review by the International Federation of Journalists and Austrian colleagues.

“The proposal of the minister certainly does not eliminate all the problematic aspects of the legislation,” Kubínyi told The Slovak Spectator.

According to Kubínyi, the proposal lacks statutes for editorial offices which would allow editorial teams to influence the work of publishing houses and eliminate interference from owners in the content or personnel structure of editorial teams.

Moreover, he said, the draft will not eliminate public officials' ability to insist on their right to reply as private individuals.

“We cannot deny them [politicians] their constitutional rights, but on the other hand public officials are not private individuals,” Kubínyi said.

Múdry says that society should not go from one extreme to the other.

“The right of reply is a standard element of European media legislation,” Múdry said, adding that in the current legislation it is unsatisfactorily treated. “In Krajcer’s draft revision it is treated in such a way that claims made in the press would have to be incorrect, incomplete or untrue in order for the right of reply to apply. Yet the complainant and not the press has to prove it. I personally think that according to the constitution no group of citizens, including public officials, can be excluded from any right. The wording of the revision talks about the privacy of public officials not their official working activities, which in my opinion is okay.”

The ministry has said it does not accept the SSN's proposed definition of journalism.

“Journalists working on the internet and for corporate newssheets are not subject to the law and do not have an obligation to protect their sources, which certainly isn’t beneficial; and they also do not have any more rights to obtain information [from public officials] than regular citizens,” Kubínyi said.

Deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee for media Rafael Rafaj, of the opposition Slovak National Party (SNS), claims that the revision is not good, calling it “a purposive advertisement” since he says application of the current code does not prove that there has been any massive uptake of the right to reply, wrote SITA.

Former culture minister Marek Maďarič, who was responsible for the existing Press Code, has said that the fact that the new government is not undertaking any massive revision proves that his law was good and that criticism of it was only a means to make trouble for the previous ruling coalition.


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