Two seemingly unrelated news stories hit the headlines in Slovakia in recent days. A group of MPs, most of them from parties in the ruling coalition, proposed an amendment to the law governing the Nation’s Memory Institute (ÚPN), the main effect of which would be to force its current director to leave within months. And another group of MPs, sitting on parliament’s culture and media committee, heard from candidates applying to lead the public-service broadcaster, RTVS.
While there is no formal connection between these two organisations, both deal with collective memory, by reporting on facts and evidence, past or present, that affect the lives of people in this country. As such, both are – or should be – on the front line in the battle to combat fake news and distorted historical narratives.
The election of the new general director of RTVS, scheduled to take place in parliament in mid June, is already subject to political pressure. Unfortunately for the broadcaster and its management, such pressure is not unprecedented. This time around, there are concerns, not entirely unfounded, that if the wrong candidate is selected for the post, the institution might regress to the infamous period in the 1990s, when it served as little more than the mouthpiece of the government.
True, these are not the 1990s, and Vladimír Mečiar is long gone, but if we look across the borders to Hungary or to Poland, it is clear that public-service media are still vulnerable to political interference.
Besides, much more is at stake here than just the need for RTVS not to succumb to local political pressures. All media, and perhaps the public-service broadcaster most of all, must recognise their responsibility to be a lighthouse for people navigating the stormy waters of the internet, where actual facts and hoaxes float around side by side. Most of the candidates who presented their plans for RTVS to the committee do not appear to realise that this is why it will be crucial for the broadcaster to retain or even increase its trust among the audience. The current RTVS director Václav Mika is one of the few who do, and that is also why local experts on media believe him to be, while not perfect, the best of the available candidates.
The ÚPN faces a similar challenge, particularly in Slovakia, where historical revisionism is an integral part of every extremist platform. The websites that spread hoaxes directed against Slovakia’s transatlantic orientation are very often the same ones that praise the wartime Slovak state, a Nazi puppet. People who have faced charges for praising that regime, or for denying the Holocaust, now sit in the Slovak parliament.
According to the law applicable to the ÚPN, the responsibility of the institute is, among others, to “analyse the causes and the ways how freedom is lost, the expressions of fascist and communist regimes and their ideologies”. With fascism on the rise across Europe, this task is more urgent than ever.
It is therefore crucial that the institute is independent and does not go back to being a refuge for historians who regard their role as to act as apologists for Slovakia’s wartime state, or who interpret the archives of the totalitarian-era intelligence services based on what suits the politicians in power. While the current director of the ÚPN, Ondrej Krajňák, has had difficult relations with his employees and is certainly not a perfect manager, he was installed in the position with 105 votes in parliament, which suggests a consensus between the opposition and the coalition, and the institute under his watch has been doing what it is supposed to, rather than sweeping inconvenient facts under the carpet.
Countries like Slovakia that have experienced more than one totalitarian regime over the past century, don’t just need to deal with that legacy. They need to be ever-vigilant for signs of the re-emergence of anything similar. Neither Slovakia’s past, nor its present, need be a source of shame; rather they should be accounted for accurately and fairly so that the Slovak people are reconciled with their collective past and well-informed about their present. The ÚPN and RTVS are central to this.
“We need to learn from history” is a cliché, as is “the media need to gain the trust of people”. But sometimes clichés are true.
1. Jun 2017 at 17:50 | Michaela Terenzani