Did journalists help extremism?

CAN THE media ignore extremists, especially when they get elected in democratic elections? Moreover, how should they depict an extremist – and should they depict him at all?

Extremist marches are often in the media spotlight.Extremist marches are often in the media spotlight. (Source: SME)

CAN THE media ignore extremists, especially when they get elected in democratic elections? Moreover, how should they depict an extremist – and should they depict him at all?

The Slovak media wrestled with these questions since the November 2013 regional election campaign began, but the issue only became a real dilemma after an extremist, Marian Kotleba, succeeded in the first election round and was soon after elected to the top post in Banská Bystrica Region in the run-off. In the run up to the second round of the elections, much was said about whether newspapers should quote Kotleba and whether broadcasters should have invited him to debate his challenger, incumbent Vladimír Maňka of Smer.

The TA3 news channel was the only one to invite Kotleba onto its televised debate prior to the first election round, thus provoking a wave of criticism from observers and other media. Later, before the second round, Maňka refused to debate Kotleba on any network other than the public-service Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS), which broadcasts regional debates live on its main radio channel and airs them later on TV. Kotleba however did not accept the RTVS’ conditions, but said he was willing to debate on the TA3 news channel, even without Maňka.

No debate ever took place between the two candidates, but they exchanged views at their respective press conferences. TA3 broadcast Kotleba’s press conference live.

Speaking after the results of the election were announced, Prime Minister Robert Fico blamed the opposition and the media for Kotleba’s victory, saying the media provided space for Kotleba’s campaigning. Observers agree that the media carries part of the responsibility, but criticise it less for its coverage of the actual election campaign, and more for the way in which it has covered Kotleba’s activities over the long term, and for the way in which it portrayed the Roma minority in Slovakia.

During the campaign

Journalists and observers agree that the media could not completely ignore Kotleba once he became a valid part of the election.

“After all, whether we like it or not, he was a normal legal candidate, and if you respect democratic principles then this man, based on the law, was entitled to equal coverage,” activist and Media Academy rector Eduard Chmelár told The Slovak Spectator.

However, Chmelár said he would reproach the media for coming to Kotleba’s press conference so unprepared that they were unable to pose questions that would have opened people’s eyes to the fact that “he is not only an extremist, but also an empty man”.

Klára Orgovánová, director of the Roma Institute, opined that Kotleba should have been given more space in the media.

“They should have asked him what he would do in the region, and challenge him to answer those questions,” Orgovánová told The Slovak Spectator. “Maybe people would find out that he is lacking in content.”

Oľga Gyárfášová, a senior research fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), believes the media did, in fact, warn people about Kotleba, his party and his record.

“When facing extremism, the media find themselves in a very delicate situation,” Gyárfášová told The Slovak Spectator, adding that reporting on the activities of an extremist might be seen as promoting them.

Media made Kotleba?

When assessing the responsibility of the media for the support of extremism among the public, one needs to look beyond the election campaign.

Chmelár put most of the blame on the media for helping to shape the phenomenon of Kotleba during a time when they did not have to cover him at all.

“In times when he was a street fighter and a rogue, whom you could have seen more frequently in shackles on the ground than in any serious position, the journalists were having fun and covered all of his exhibitionist acts, which serious media would never do,” Chmelár said, recalling the time when Kotleba used to hold commemorations at the grave of the president of the wartime fascist Slovak state, and when he used to march to Roma settlements. This was the time when the phenomenon of Kotleba emerged, “otherwise no one would have known about him”, Chmelár said.

Journalists who spoke to The Slovak Spectator mostly agree that the media did make serious mistakes in the past when covering extremism.

“The only serious mistake has been the efforts of the television networks to make a big show out of the anti-Roma events of this small man,” said Peter Vavro, the Hospodárske Noviny daily editor-in-chief, adding that this was how they turned a rank-and-file neo-Nazi into the only well-known fighter against what Kotleba calls the Roma oppressing the majority.

Editor-in-chief of the Pravda daily, Nora Slišková, believes the media made a mistake by airing reports about anti-Roma marches and similar extremist events without putting them into a critical context.

“It’s not possible to say A and not to say B,” Slišková said. “The media’s task is to be the first to see the danger, before hardly anyone even suspects it; to give it a name, to take a stance and to warn the others.”

Roma in the media

Slišková admits that some media outlets have lacked a conceptual approach when dealing with the topic of extremism and human rights in general, which in her view is a major problem.

Coverage of Roma topics by tabloid TV programmes and papers have been particularly problematic, according to Elena Gallová Kriglerová from the Centre for Research of Ethnicity and Culture. They tended to show the terrible state of Roma settlements and run reports about Roma communities on a daily basis without providing any context.

“In doing this they helped to form public opinion and to form the feeling that Slovakia is threatened by the Roma,” Gallová Kriglerová said, adding that the media often creates internal enemies and this is what happened with the coverage of the Roma minority.

Chmelár mentioned a video which Kotleba used for his promotion on his own website, depicting stereotypes of Roma living in settlements, which is actually a compilation of news shots from the private TV channel Markíza.

“This has been successfully fuelled by the media for many years,” Chmelár charged. “Kotleba is no initiator, he only benefited from this wave.”

Chmelár recalls that years ago “the main agenda of Kotleba was praising the criminal acts of the wartime Nazi state, and when he realised that it did not work with the people, he found a new agenda”, for which the media has already prepared some fertile soil: “the anti-Roma agenda”.

“Kotleba only picked the prejudices, which have long been rooted in society, and it is hard to dissolve these,” said Chmelár, suggesting that people still believe that the Roma live on social welfare. “I have seen those Roma families in the settlements, where a seven-member family has a [monthly] income of €350, and those people live beyond the boundaries of poverty, and of course there is crime. But there is a difference between crime out of poverty and crime committed by oligarchs.”

What now?

In response to the extremists’ rise to power in one of Slovakia’s regions, journalists have to start doing serious journalism, and the only way to handle Kotleba is to show who he actually is, Chmelár suggested. He sees the media’s role as discussing Roma issues with experts in an insightful way without scandalising it.

The media can no longer ignore Kotleba, especially now that he assumes the post of the regional governor, with relatively wide authority. His actions will now be of interest to businesses and oligarchs.

“Now’s the time to do journalism, but it will be difficult,” Chmelár said, adding that the media should assign these issues to the best journalists they have.

The chief editors of the major dailies all agree that ignoring Kotleba is no longer an option.
“The media cannot keep silent about Kotleba; silence won’t change anything,” the Sme daily’s Matúš Kostolný told The Slovak Spectator. “Quite the contrary, it is the duty of the media to write about Kotleba and his opinions and to clarify the context.”

At the same time, the media must approach these topics responsibly, in order not to provide Kotleba and his allies with a platform to spread hatred.

“One should always keep in mind that Kotleba’s statements exist at the edge of the law,” Kostolný said.

Radka Minarechová contributed to this report

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