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07.03.2019

Fears for press freedom as Slovakia debates new media law

By Jane Whyatt

One year after the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová, Slovakia’s National Council (parliament) is debating controversial amendments to the Press Act of 2008.

Media freedom community condemns murder of journalist and partner 27 year old investigative journalist Ján Kuciak. (photo with permission of Aktuality.sk)

However, the proposed amendments do not address the protection of journalists. Rather they emphasise the protection of politicians’ reputations, with a statutory right of reply for political personalities, and a new state regulator to replace the current system of self-regulation. The ECPMF and others have criticised the proposal publicly.

The new amendment is proposed by two leading MPs (National Council Members) of the ruling SMER party, Miroslav Ciz and Dusan Jarjab. It would mean a return to the regulations that existed before 2011, when the government of Prime Minister Iveta Radičova changed Slovakia’s Press Act. The changes meant adding a clause that excludes “public officials and high-ranking politicians from having recourse to it,” as a Council of Europe (CoE) platform explains. “The current bill would terminate that exception and require media outlets to publish a reply by individuals, including public officials and political leaders, who claim their rights to dignity, honour or privacy were violated by ‘factual statements’ in ‘periodical press or news agency items.’”

If the proposed amendments pass into law, media refusing to publish a reply could be slapped with a fine of up to about 5,000 euros, the CoE platform also points out.

Press freedom community on alert in Slovakia

Radičova is now a Professor and Dean of Media at the Pan-European University, and she joined the high-level debate about the draft changes to the legal framework for the media at the Bratislava Press Freedom Conference. Radičova remarked that the changes would amount to ‘cooking the frog’. She said if the water temperature rises gradually over a period of time, the fatal damage is done to press freedom before anyone notices. She warned of a “creeping party political colonisation of the media.”

Radičova called for better protection of journalists and said they are put at risk by hate speech – including some from senior political figures. She noted that former Prime Minister Robert Fico had called reporters “dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes.”

Fico resigned with four of his Cabinet after the murder of Ján Kuciak.

MEPs debate fact-finding mission and justice for Jàn Kuciak Debate on the Kuciak case at EP Strasbourg, 2018. Photo: Benedek Jàvor

Also at the conference, media lawyer Tomáš Kamenec welcomed the fact that such coarse language is no longer used by politicians following the killing of Ján Kuciak and the widespread street protests against corruption. These protests were repeated in Slovakia  recently, on the anniversary of the assassination. 

Nonetheless, Kamenec also criticised the new media law, calling the proposed new state regulator a “censorship bureau.” He cited as an example two former government ministers, who are serving jail terms for interfering with public procurement contracts. He insisted:

Would they get a right of reply, and penalties imposed on the publishers who broke the story of a minimum of 1,500 euros? There can be no justification for this.” 

The ECPMF joined the debate, pointing out that the European Union and courts have clearly-defined international standards. Self-regulation guided by journalists’ code of ethics is normal practice in most European countries. Media laws that are strongly on the side of journalists can protect a free press - for example, with a defence of ‘publishing in the public interest’, as in the English Defamation Reform Act of 2014. However, by giving a statutory right of reply to politicians, the proposed law would have the opposite effect.

Politicians and public figures have many ways and ample resources to defend their reputations, whereas ordinary people do not.

A government spokesperson who was due to put the case for the new media law at the conference had to cancel the appearance at the last minute. On the Parliamentary List website, the two authors of the press law amendment are quoted:

“The right to reply is an element of the press right of some European countries, such as France, which is based on the principle of 'audiatur et altera pars', that is, let the other party also be heard,” they argue.

Presidential veto

However, in his keynote address to the Bratislava Press Freedom Conference, Slovakia’s President Andrej Ciska deplored the proposals. He warned:

There are efforts to break the trust of the public in the media. Independent journalism must be protected.”

In addition, President Ciska promised that he would use his presidential veto to block the new media law if it is passed by parliament. In effect, this promise comes too late: general elections are due on 16. and 30. March 2019, and they will see a new president elected, as Ciska is not running for re-election.

Marc Walder, CEO of the publisher Ringier Switzerland, called on conference participants to spread the news of Slovakia’s new media law across the rest of Europe. Drawing international attention to the debate might prompt a re-think, as it did in the case of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s proposed new press law

Meanwhile, Harlem Désir, the High Representative on Freedom of the Media at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, has condemned the proposed amendments to the Slovakia Press Act and called on Slovakian parliamentarians to reject or repeal them. The Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic has acknowledged Désir's remarks and declared it would take them into account. 

The ECPMF has requested a comment from the Slovakian National Council on the new media law, but has so far received no answer.



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