“ARE YOU a complete illiterate?” was how Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič responded when a reporter from the Sme daily asked him to explain why he has so far failed to appoint as general prosecutor Jozef Čentéš, who was elected to the position by parliament on June 7, 2011. Gašparovič then recommended that the journalist read a recent decision by the Constitutional Court: “Read – if you are able to read – the decision of the Constitutional Court: it is there in black and white”. As he left the room, the president, referring to the reporter, muttered: “She is not normal.”
As a result of the incident, the president is facing criticism not just for his ongoing refusal to appoint Čentéš, whose election by parliament was ruled legitimate by the Constitutional Court in a verdict issued earlier this year, but for the disrespectful language he used when addressing the Sme journalist. However, Gašparovič retains support within the Robert Fico-led ruling coalition for both his approach to the appointment of Čentéš and his demeanour towards journalists who question him.
The Constitutional Court on October 24, 2012, ruled that the president of Slovakia must “deal with” a proposal of parliament to appoint a new general prosecutor based on the 150th article of the Slovak constitution, and that if the candidate was elected in accordance with the law the president must either appoint him or her “within an appropriate time-frame” or inform parliament of his refusal to do so.
According to the Constitutional Court, the president can refuse to appoint a candidate only if the candidate does not meet the legal requirements for the office or there are “grave reasons” that cast doubt on the candidate’s ability to perform the job in a way that does not harm the authority of the institution of general prosecutor. When rejecting an appointment the president “shall list reasons for not appointing the candidate, and these reasons cannot be arbitrary”, the court ruled.
In response to that verdict, Gašparovič said that he would wait for the Constitutional Court to rule on all pending cases related to the appointment of Čentéš, and only then make his decision.
“Let’s not forget that there is a complaint filed by Čentéš himself, who asked the Constitutional Court to say whether his constitutional rights had been violated,” Marek Trubač, the president’s spokesperson, said on October 28 during a political talk show on Slovak Television (STV), adding that only after that decision would the “appropriate time frame” for the president’s response commence.
On November 12 Gašparovič reconfirmed this stance when asked by the media about his refusal to meet Čentéš. “Why should I meet Mr Čentéš when he filed a complaint against me with the Constitutional Court? Why should I?” the SITA newswire quoted him as saying.
The president's way with words
In its response to the November 12 incident involving the Sme journalist, the Office of the President blamed the Sme reporter, and another from private broadcaster TV Markíza, for what it called inquiring about issues which were not related to the occasion for which the press conference had been called, according to Sme.
When asked about Gašparovič’s comments, Culture Minister Marek Maďarič defended the president’s choice of words. “If a politician has to endure critical, tough and sometimes provocative questions by journalists, the journalist should endure the lively and spontaneous response of a politician,” he said, as quoted by Sme.
A media freedom watchdog nevertheless said that there was a deeper issue behind the president’s words than just a “spontaneous response”.
“The statements that the president made today, directed at journalists, once again prove that the public officials-media-citizens relationship in Slovakia is not working,” Pavol Múdry, head of the board of the Slovak branch of the International Press Institute responded on November 12. “One of the roles of the media in this triangle is to inform the wider public about the activities, statements and stances of public officials. If this does not work, the public does not have many other ways to learn about the work of public officials.”
Múdry said that “mutual respect”, especially between public officials and the media, is lacking in this triangle and that as a result citizens suffer by having weaker access to information on happenings in this country.
“For the sake of good public access to information, public officials should consider their responsibility towards the public,” Múdry concluded.