A raised voice and foul language was what journalists got from the prime minister at a recent press conference where he and the foreign minister were expected to explain the suspicious circumstances of public procurement described by a former ministry staffer.
Observers of the Slovak media scene see this as a threat to media freedom.
“I think that in the 2016 rankings Slovakia will move down, mostly due to the still-high or even increasing hostility between politicians and the media,” Pavol Múdry told The Slovak Spectator on behalf of the International Press Institute (IPI).
For Slovakia, that hostility is not news. For instance, it is not the first time Prime Minister Robert Fico has used derogatory language towards journalists. He has previously called journalists “idiots” and “slimy snakes”, and earlier this year described one TV reporter a “toilet spider”. Moreover, Slovakia has struggled with the issue of newspaper ownership for the past two years, as well as with laws that allow for a prison sentence for defamation.
Despite these challenges, Slovakia continues ranking rather high in media freedom rankings, most recently ranking 12th among 180 countries in the annual report by Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF). Since 2009, when Slovakia ranked 44th, its standing has improved every year. Experts, however, agree that the rankings should be approached with caution.
Pressure on RTVS
Slovakia is doing well when compared to countries where journalists are really prosecuted and imprisoned, Múdry noted.
Compared to its neighbours, Slovakia is doing better than Hungary (67) or Poland (47), both of which have seen their democratic institutions, including media freedom, facing immense challenges and attacks coming from their governments, noted Rasťo Kužel from the MEMO 98 media freedom watchdog.
“We have been so far lucky to avoid this kind of problem but this could change – for example, with respect to RTVS,” he told The Slovak Spectator.
Observers have voiced concerns about the clear attempts of the junior coalition partner, the Slovak National Party (SNS), to take control over RTVS. SNS head Andrej Danko has been in conflict with Culture Minister Marek Maďarič of Smer, who has proposed increasing licence fees.
MEMO 98 monitored RTVS coverage of the election campaign and found improvements in objectivity compared to previous years’ coverage by the station.
“But if the SNS succeeds in its efforts, we would be back to the old times when Slovak public-service TV was under direct political pressure,” Kužel said.
The print media landscape changed significantly in late 2014, when several major outlets changed owners and ended up in the hands, or partly owned, by local financial sharks.
Media buying by big financial groups is a worldwide phenomenon, according to Múdry. Media cannot be produced without finances and the business is no longer as profitable as it used to be, he noted.
While Múdry believes that, for instance, the Penta financial group has not influenced the content of the media that it bought “otherwise the media in question and their journalists would have spoken up”, Kužel sees “a clear negative impact on editorial independence, including self-censorship in coverage of politically-sensitive topics as well as an overall impact on the plurality of views”.
The increased concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few individuals limits the diversity of information available to the public, Kužel said.
Defamation as a legislative challenge
Global media freedom watchdogs, despite Slovakia’s high ranking, point to the fact that Slovak laws allow defamation to be punished with up to eight years in prison, which is the harshest penalty for this offence in the European Union, as noted by the Reporters Sans Frontieres.
While the Slovak courts rarely utilise criminal penalties for defamation, it would be good practice between OSCE and stated participating in the Council of Europe to decriminalise defamation, Kužel noted.
“Members of the government (including PM Fico), the judiciary and other politicians have used civil defamation lawsuits to target the press and demand large sums of money,” he said.
Múdry perceives this as the biggest threat for the freedom of media in Slovakia. Despite the fact that it is not often used, “the threat exists, and politicians use it to scare journalists away”.
Besides national laws, Kužel also pointed to the global challenge that media face nowadays, which include the impact of propaganda and disinformation.
“I believe that the best response to propaganda is good quality journalism and proper fact checking, so instead of undermining the freedom of the media, governments should do everything possible to protect it,” he stated.
Disclaimer: Penta financial group has a 45-percent ownership share in Petit Press, a co-owner of The Slovak Spectator.
The Spectator College is a programme designed to support the study and teaching of English in Slovakia, as well as to inspire interest in important public issues among young people. The project was created by The Slovak Spectator in cooperation with their exclusive partner – the Leaf Academy.