“Some of you are dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes and I stand by my words,” was how Prime Minister Robert Fico addressed journalists at a press conference on November 23. The outburst came during a media event convened by Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák to respond to allegations of overpriced procurement at EU presidency-related events organized by his ministry.
“It is not possible that you lie and harm the Slovak presidency [of the EU] on a daily basis,” Fico told the assembled journalists, stating that his role as prime minister was to defend what he called “my people”.
The allegations voiced by former Foreign Ministry employee Zuzana Hlávková and the coverage they received in the Slovak media are, the prime minister alleged, a “targeted attack on the Slovak presidency”.
It is not the first time the prime minister has used derogatory language towards journalists. He has previously called journalists idiots and slimy snakes, and recently described one TV reporter a “toilet spider”.
This time around, Fico’s comments attracted attention beyond Slovakia, after the Reuters newswire reported his statements and the Guardian picked up the piece on its website.
The report was placed prominently on The Guardian international website, which is ranked by web analysis firm Alexa as one of the world’s top five news websites in terms of traffic. Fico’s comments were trending as one of its top ten international stories by the evening of 23 November.
Ironically, the prime minister’s words may therefore have served to alert a much wider European and global audience to the allegations of wrongdoing surrounding Slovakia’s EU presidency.
Several organisations representing media professionals condemned the statements.
IPI: Trustworthy media cannot be replaced
When the country’s prime minister calls journalists “anti-Slovak prostitutes”, he is moving the public discourse into a space “where there is no serious discussion any more that would bring any good to the public”, wrote the Sme daily’s editor-in-chief, Beata Balogová, who is a member of the executive committee of the International Press Institute (IPI).
“Journalists are doing their job to monitor public officials and people close to power,” Balogová, who previously served as the editor-in-chief of The Slovak Spectator, continued. She noted that without the work of journalists the public might never learn about suspicions of corrupt behaviour.
“It is a public service; nobody can replace a trustworthy media,” Balogová wrote, added that questioning the trustworthiness of the media is a tactic often used by populist politicians around the world.
AEJ: Threat to press freedom
The Slovak section of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) expressed “exceptional concerns” in a statement signed by the AEJ General Secretary, Tibor Macak, the founder of the organisation’s Slovak section, Juraj Alner, and the chairman of Slovak Press Council, Július Lőrincz.
“This verbal attack by the prime minister is not only beyond all limits of decency, but it also provides a dangerous precedent for further denigration of journalists’ work in public, which might lead the freedom of the press and of expression to be threatened in Slovakia,” they wrote in the statement, as quoted by the SITA newswire.
The association noted that Fico has never apologised for similar statements he has made in the past, but called on him to do so now.
“We are convinced that the basic ethical values, which are respect for personal freedom, human rights and the integrity of citizens, decency and justice, are not binding just for journalists but also for politicians holding constitutional positions in the state,” the AEJ wrote.