Prime Minister Robert Fico said yesterday he was ready to amend a controversial bill reforming Slovakia’s press law. “We can assure you that we will take into consideration any observations that may be made by the leading international organisations and they will be incorporated into the draft media law on the second and third readings,” Fico said.
After initially describing the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s criticisms as groundless, culture minister Milan Knazko has proposed a meeting with the OSCE to discuss changes to the draft media law.
A Reporters Without Borders press release on 29 January had urged the Slovak authorities to revise the proposed amendments to the press law, saying they were incompatible with the European Union’s standards.
“We welcome the Slovak government’s readiness to dialogue but we will continue to pay close attention to the important changes that need to be made to the bill,” Reporters Without Borders said today.
Government bill threatens news media’s editorial freedom and autonomy
A bill modernising a 1966 press law that Prime Minister Robert Fico’s government submitted to parliament at the end of last year would give the culture ministry direct control over media coverage of a range of sensitive subjects and would give an automatic right of response to anyone who, rightly or wrongly, felt they had been defamed or insulted.
The bill is opposed by the opposition parties, which are threatening not to ratify the European Union’s new Lisbon treaty unless it is withdrawn.
“By joining the EU, Slovakia undertook to conform to democratic standards, especially as regards press freedom,” Reporters Without Borders said. “A law restricting the news media’s editorial freedom to an official framework arbitrarily determined by the government would not be acceptable. It would perpetuate an outmoded concept of press freedom in which it is the state’s job to ensure that the media are objective.”
The press freedom organisation added: “We call on the Slovak government to open a debate as quickly as possible with all the media about the modernisation and reform of the press law.”
Three articles in the proposed law pose particular problems.
Article 6 would give the culture ministry the power to force newspapers to stop publishing reports that excuse, trivialize or condone behaviour detrimental to society on such issues as war, drug use, sexual orientation, religion and violence.
This would lead in practice to self-censorship and would make it impossible to contrast two opposing viewpoints in the same article. Milos Nemecek, the president of the Slovak Publishers Association, gives as an example the problem of media coverage of the debate about invading Iraq.
Various viewpoints were expressed in the press, some favourable to a US invasion. If article 6 had been in force, the news media that published the favourable views would have been punished.
Article 6 would also entail the transfer to the executive of responsibilities usually assigned to the judiciary, thereby violating the principle of the separation of powers.
Articles 8 and 10 would give an automatic right of response to anyone who felt they had been offended, criticised or defamed, and would lead to news media being fined if they refused to publish the response. Nemecek says most Slovak journalists and media executives are not opposed to the right of response in principle, but they believe the way this right is applied, and the limits on it, must be defined. In their present form, articles 8 and 10 would result in the right of response being abused. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has also expressed its reservations about the bill. In a letter to Slovak foreign minister Jan Kubis on 22 January, the OSCE’s representative on freedom of the media, Miklos Haraszti, said he was very concerned about the bill’s arbitrary aspect.
In an interview for the Slovak Spectator, Haraszti said: “If the Slovak parliament approves this law as it stands, it would mean Slovakia was violating its commitments to the OSCE. I also think that everything that could be done on the basis of these two articles would clash with the principles of the European Court of Human Rights. Slovakia would then be subject to constant criticism from my department and from those of the 55 other OSCE members.”