One year after a new media law in Slovakia passed almost unamended – despite a stormy debate and protests from the media community – the Hungarian parliament is discussing a bill which journalists and civil society fears will curtail media freedom. In the Czech Republic a media law has been in force for nearly ten years but recently, following a number of media scandals involving Czech politicians, all political parties have backed the draft of a new law which would criminalize journalists for using material based on leaked police sources. The following survey sums up the response of the beleaguered media in the three Central European countries.
While journalists and legal experts in Hungary do not mind, or even welcome, some of the provisions in the draft media bill, many are concerned about the degree of control it gives the state over the media, and about the sweeping rights it gives the new National Media Authority (Nemzeti Médiahatóság NMH), which will replace the current State Radio and TV Council (Országos Rádió és Televízió TestÃ¼let ORTT). If the authority suspects that a broadcaster has broken the law, it has the right to enter closed editorial offices, confiscate computers and original documents which, as the bill’s authors see it, meets the demands of the digital era. […] Is it warranted to grant the authorities powers, reminiscent of the Kádár era, allowing them to search any premises, entering them arbitrarily, against the wishes of the owner and of persons occupying them, and gives access to any premises, buildings and rooms ‘in matters within its competence’? This sort of thing can never be justified nor does it reflect principles of justice. Such a provision is conceivable only in a state of war or an emergency although, I hasten to add, it would not be acceptable even then, says Élet és Irodalom in its editorial.
Sociologist Mária Vásárhelyi, also writing in Élet és Irodalom, believes the draft law is not entirely without any positive elements: It grants much stronger protection to human dignity as well as for the rights of underage persons which is in accordance with the basic principles of democracy, fits in with our current constitutional order, as well as the social expectations engendered by our constitution. Confiscation of data carriers, copying data or carrying out a house search authorized by a court order is not detrimental to the democratic rule of law – on the contrary, it is in the interest of its protection in cases when the rule of law is violated or threatened by material carried by the media.
ORTT Chairman László Majtényi disagrees with Mária Vásárhelyi and believes the draft bill will not provide effective protection for human dignity and the rights of young people. In his official expert opinion, published by Népszabadság, he says: The new legislation, even in cases of incitement to hatred, defines the offence as an intentional act, whereas currently the mere fact of including a programme capable of inciting hatred is sufficient to trigger sanctions. The draft is not in line with European regulations because EU directives do not define a media provider’s intent as part of an offence. With regard to the protection of underage persons the draft does not propose any form of self-regulation and/or partner regulation, even though many European countries have succeeded in bringing about cooperation between authorities and providers.
The new media law in Slovakia was hotly contested. Unlike in Hungary, the opposition did everything to defeat the bill in Parliament, albeit to no avail, and once the law was passed, newspapers staged a dramatic protest, appearing with the same title page. The most disputed provision is the so-called ‘right of reply’ which puts all newspapers under the obligation to publish the response of a person who feels wronged by an article (placing it in the same slot and allowing it the same space as the original article), regardless of whether the published information was true or not, provided the person wishes to make use of this right. While it is up to a court to decide, subsequently, whether the request was justified or not, refusal to publish the response is punishable by ruinously high fines.
One year after the Slovak law’s adoption Martin M. Šimečka in Respekt asked his Slovak journalist colleagues if their worst fears had come true. “Not so far,” says editor of the daily Pravda, Petr Šabata. Since July last year about a hundred requests from individuals asking to make use of the ‘right of reply’ landed on his neat desk, and their numbers have been going down each month. “We have only published five responses,” says Petr Šabata. The rest were turned down on formal grounds. “In practice, the threat has not been real so far, although it’s been demanding in terms of administration and lawyers. A decision has to be made within three days.” Matúš Kostolný, editor of another serious daily, SME, reports a similar experience: “So far we have published only one text as a result of this law.” He too turned down the rest on formal grounds. Some of those affected may have appealed to the courts although no hearings have taken place yet. “If a hearing is held, its decision will be crucial,” says Matúš Kostolný. Martin M. Šimečka concludes: The Slovak media law has turned out to have some positive aspects too. Unlike the Czech law it protects Slovak journalists who have the obligation ‘not to disclose their sources of information’. The Slovak law does not include a provision penalizing journalists for publishing information from leaked wiretaps, as in the Czech Republic.
On 6 February 2009 in the Czech Republic a amendment of the criminal code was passed, backed by both the opposition and government parties. The bill, due to be signed into law by the Czech President, envisages harsh sanctions for journalists who use stolen materials. Twenty years after our constitution guaranteed freedom of expression this is the first piece of legislation which, in effect, curtails this right, says Miroslav Jelínek, Chairman of the Czech Journalists Association.
Czech publishers have written an open letter to President Václav Klaus warning that the new legal provision restricts freedom of expression. We are not demanding the right for the media to tap anyone’s conversations, the letter stresses, on the contrary, we want our authorities to act professionally and legally, and protect this sort of information from being leaked. The publishers argue that it does not make sense to punish journalists for publishing information leaked by the police or lawyers. Journalists can only get hold of documents that have passed through the protection system and are thus available to others too.
Journalist Ondřej Štindl comments: The Parliament has muzzled Czech journalists. Nearly everyone who has commented on the amendment to the criminal law, which provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for publishing transcribed tapped conversations, agrees that it drastically curtails freedom of expression.