Press fights the state gag

Life for Slovak journalists is not exactly a bed of roses. Nonetheless, in spite of a populist government out to gag them by hook or by crook, they still manage to break scandals galore.

Published on 16 November 2009 at 14:39
No press freedom, but you can still buy cigarettes. Bratislava, Slovakia - "Novinový stánok", newspaper, stamp and tobacco kiosk. Photo : Gilderic/Flickr

In Slovakia, there is no need for heaps of experience under your belt to be a newspaper editor. Matúš Kostolný, editor-in-chief of Sme, the country’s leading daily, is a mere 34, and Juraj Porubsky, head of the rival daily Pravda, is actually three years his junior. That is no coincidence: “Nobody wants this job,” Porubsky says with a rueful smile. Putting out a newspaper in Slovakia is no picnic. For one thing, the press there – as elsewhere in the world – faces a dwindling readership. To make matters far worse, however, journalists have to grapple with government antagonism.

Ever since a coalition of socialists, populists and nationalists came to power in 2006, the press has been seeing hard times. Slovak prime minister Robert Fico (Socialist Party, SMER) makes no bones about his enmity for the papers. What he relishes most, according to Matúš Kostolný, is heaping abuse on journalists: Fico habitually calls them “idiots”, but has also let slip the occasional “whore” or “snake”. The printed press is in the dog house owing to the critical coverage of governmental goings-on in the three main papers (Smeand Pravda plus Hospodárske Noviny), which, tallies Gabriel Sipos of Slovak Press Watch, break three-fourths of the scandals in Slovakia.

Scandals served up by the plateful

And they needn’t dig very far to find ample muck to rake in Bratislava. The motley crew of populists, nationalists and semi-crooks now at the helm, Sipos says, supply the press with plenty of grist for its mill. The Socialist Party’s coalition partners are particularly good at keeping investigative journalists busy. The Slovak National Party led by Jan Slota, who take it out on Hungarians, Gypsies and homosexuals, and the People’s Party of ex-PM Vladimír Mečiar, whose autocratic rule in the 1990s gave Slovakia a bad name, are not exactly famed for playing by the rules of democracy. And Fico’s election promises to combat the spreading canker of corruption have yet to amount to much.

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From time to time, Sipos affirms, the papers do win the day: recently, for instance, the nationalist minister of infrastructures and regional development had to resign when the press nailed him for wheeling and dealing in European funds. But the papers pay dearly for taking the state to task. In reprisal for the negative press, Fico, who, as prime minister, can count on support from (state) television, simply ignores questions from the three main papers’ correspondents at press conferences. Libel suits are another way to gag the press. In June, vice-prime minister Štefan Harabin, a member of Mečiar’s party, claimed €600,000 in compensation from three newspapers, including Smeand Pravda, that had accused him of having ties to an Albanian drug dealer. Fico has sued for damages several times too.

A rigged press code

But the greatest threat to press freedom in Slovakia is the “Press Code” adopted last year by parliament. The legislation entitles anyone who takes umbrage at an article to have a denial published in the same periodical as the alleged affront, whether the facts reported are true or not. Failure to publish a denial carries a fine of €1,660 to €4,980. The Press Code hasn’t borne much fruit yet. Bar a few exceptions, Smeand Pravdahave refused to print any denials. The risk of their being fined will depend on the judge. For the time being, the courts are not overly eager to adjudicate these matters. But to Sipos that is not necessarily a good sign: “The courts don’t work the way they should in Slovakia.”

The prime minister is peeved that none of the papers has been fined to date. After a tabloid in September alleged he was shelling out €900 a month in tuition fees for his son, he threatened to toughen up the legislation. So that does not bode well for freedom of the press. In its latest annual report, Reporters Without Borders downgrades Slovakia to the 44th rung, the steepest drop of any country in the world, after it came in 7th just last year. One may well wonder whether Fico, still far ahead in the opinion polls, really gives a fig. Pravda’s chief editor Juraj Porubsky doesn’t think so: “People who read the papers don’t vote for him anyway.”

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