Central Europe’’s laboratory of freedom

For the past few months a neighbour has been leaving the tabloid Nový Čas by my front door. I guess this is his way of paying me back for the eight years I used to put through his letter box the next day’’s issue of Slovakia’’s largest-circulation serious daily SME of which I was editor at the time.

Today I learned from the tabloid that our left-wing Prime Minister Robert Fico, who had won the hearts of the poorest voters, wears a 20,000 Euro watch and that his coalition partner, the nationalist populist Ján Slota has several luxury cars in his garage and loves flying his private plane whenever he is not too drunk. I am relieved to read news of this kind and see it as a sign that press freedom in Slovakia is not as restricted as it sometimes seems.

Nevertheless, the fact is that media freedom in Slovakia today – twenty years after the communist regime fell in 1989 – is again under threat because, as a result of a cartel that the justice system has formed with the government, and with the help of corrupt or cowardly judges, politicians have been able to win enormous sums of money as compensation in law suits that they have pursued in their capacity as private citizens. Slovak judges have effectively ignored European tradition and the opinion of the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg which recommends that politicians, in their capacity as public officials, ought to enjoy less protection from media criticism than private citizens.

One of the most successful litigators is Štefan Harabin, who stepped down as Minister of Justice in June 2009 to become President of Slovakia’‘s Supreme Court. His position effectively gives him control over the entire justice system, which means that few judges dare to stand up to him.  He has succeeded in extracting nearly 100,000 Euros in total as compensation from the media.  Most recently the daily SME was made to pay him 33,000 Euros. The paper carried a story dating back to 1985 when Harabin — then already a Supreme Court judge — gave a legal opinion in the trial of a Catholic priest.   Based on Harabin’’s expert opinion the Communist regime sent the priest to prison for two years for celebrating the mass in private. After researching this case the daily SME claimed that it was Harabin who had sentenced the priest to a term of imprisonment. Because of the small inaccuracy, which did not actually affect the substance of the story — rather than himself passing sentence, Harabin only wrote the legal opinion which obliged another judge to send the priest to prison — the daily is having to pay him a huge sum.

The purpose of the ridiculously big compensations politicians have been awarded by the courts is to intimidate the media and, in some cases, to go so far as destroying them financially. The very principle of compensation is absurd.  For example, Harabin claimed in court that the article SME published in 2005 damaged his reputation, yet this damage to his reputation has not prevented him from being appointed Minister of Justice and later President of the Supreme Court.

Prime Minister Robert Fico and his coalition partner Ján Slota have also been successfully suing the media. Fico has won several lawsuits and was awarded tens of thousands of Euros in compensation. In some cases the lawsuits concerned issues that were quite absurd. For example, in 2007 the economic weekly Trend sported a cover picture of Prime Minister Fico and the caption: The Thief of Future Pensions. This happened at a time when the Prime Minister harshly criticized his predecessor’’s pension reform introducing private pension savings.  Fico publicly denounced this type of reform and threatened to abolish it, which explains the caption. However, the court concluded that the weekly Trend had slandered the President and ordered it to pay him 8,000 Euros and to issue an apology.

Ján Slota, in turn, won a lawsuit against the tabloid Nový Čas which carried a story describing how, as a young man in 1970, he had been detained with a friend during an attempted escape from Czechoslovakia. The story was based on Communist archives that are now accessible to the public. Slota’’s friend later joined a criminal gang. Admittedly, the tabloid did spice up the caption ever so slightly, creating the impression that it was Slota rather than his friend who had turned into a criminal, yet the amount of compensation awarded by the court amounted to an absurd 20,000 Euros.

There are dozens of similar examples.  This is obviously a deliberate attempt to restrict media freedom and to dampen media criticism of the government. This phenomenon is quite unique in Central Europe. In the neighbouring Czech Republic, for instance, politicians hardly ever win lawsuits against the media and the compensation – if any – is more or less symbolic. This is because the Czech Constitutional Court has ruled on several occasions that in the interest of the freedom of expression politicians must sometimes endure harsh criticism from the media.

Brief History of a Battle

Slovakia is a kind of laboratory of freedom in Central Europe, at the confluence of the authoritarian East and the liberal West.  In the 1990s journalists fought very hard to win their freedom and it seemed at the time that their battle was won for good.

The then Prime Minister, the authoritarian Vladimír Mečiar, was determined to silence independent print media in various ways. In 1995, all of a sudden, the  printing presses – then still owned by the state  –  refused to print the opposition daily SME.  But the paper’‘s publisher responded by buying a printing press of his own thus, ironically, achieving real independence. The next thing Mečiar tried to do was to introduce a dramatic rise in VAT on printed papers in order to weaken the press economically. However, the next day all Slovak dailies closed ranks and all appeared with a blank front page. They kept each other informed of instances of journalists being intimidated by the secret services (one journalist had his car blown up outside his home, another was openly followed in the street and many others were quite openly bugged.) In fact, all that Mečiar achieved was to unite the media in a strong opposition front which later helped the political opposition to win the 1998 general election.

Having triumphed over the authoritarian Mečiar, freedom of the press seemed to be in excellent shape for a while. Surely the politicians, whom the media had helped to gain power, would lend it their full support? Alas, the enforced love affair between politicians and journalists proved to be short-lived. The new political line-up soon succumbed to the lure of corruption, which in turn attracted criticism from the media. The gap between the two sides kept growing until it turned out that the new government also ordered the secret service to bug journalists (of the daily SME).  A widespread scandal led to a bitter conflict between the media and the then Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda who took two main dailies (Pravda and SME) to court demanding compensation in excess of 150,000 Euros for – opinion pieces! The case is still going through the courts.

Nevertheless, during this period, which lasted until 2006, relations between the powers that be and the media were closer to Western liberal standards than ever. Even though politicians tried to exert influence over journalists, successfully in many cases, and even though they complained about editors to their publishers, refused to give interviews or answer difficult questions etc, none of this really differed from what is common practice in Central Europe. Despite bitter disputes there was a kind of agreement on fundamental notions, such as Slovakia’’s entry into the EU and NATO or the need for economic reforms. When the government – as part of the economic reform and the introduction of a flat tax rate – dramatically raised VAT on newspapers (more than Mečiar had intended in his day), neither journalists nor publishers raised their voices in protest because they recognized that the decision made economic sense.

After 2006, following the victory of the left-wing populist Robert Fico who became Prime Minister, the situation deteriorated again, eventually descending into open warfare between the Prime Minister and the media. Fico has repeatedly referred to journalists as hyenas and whores, accusing them of working for the opposition and being corrupt, and journalists have responded by paying him back in the same coin.

The media legislation introduced by the government led to protests by international journalist organizations because it includes an article on a right to reply, which obliges the media to publish responses of individuals who feel personally offended. Prime Minister Fico claimed that the purpose of this law was the protection of ordinary citizens who needed an instrument against the slanderous media but, as it soon turned out, the only offended citizens to have made use of the new law were politicians and entrepreneurs. Once again, just as under Mečiar, the Slovak media formed a united front and on the day the bill was going through parliament all Slovak newspapers appeared with a title page that was blank apart from a brief protest against the bill. Nevertheless, worries that newspapers would be inundated by hundreds of responses from offended citizens, making use of their right to reply have so far failed to materialize. The law has been in force for over a year, yet the number of responses published as a result has not exceeded a few dozen. The main reason is that the media have hired top lawyers who discovered a number of errors in the legislation which enable them to reject the majority of requests for a response. The question is what will happen once some of these cases make it to court. The attitude of the courts to the media has been discussed elsewhere in this article.

A Love Affair with the Right  

The battle for the freedom of the press led by the media and the politicians is evidently not over in Slovakia but it would be an exaggeration to claim that Slovakia is an unfree country. In spite of all attempts on the politicians’‘ part to drive critically-minded media into a corner, it is the newspapers that harry the politicians into a corner on a daily basis, exposing their corruption and lies,  dressing them down and mocking them on a daily basis – often with justification.

Nevertheless, it is not only external pressures that threaten the independence of the Slovak media. While their running battle with every political line-up since 1989 has put Slovak journalists in a relatively strong and independent position, they have become, in a way, victims of their own success. The media scene in Slovakia has developed in such a peculiar way that it is enough to read one newspaper to know what all the other papers are saying. Curiously, nearly all Slovak media, rather uniquely in Central Europe, are basically on the Right.  To be sure, right-leaning journalists dominate the Czech media too, with only one out of four big dailies on the Left but in neighbouring Poland the market is dominated by the liberal left-leaning Gazeta Wyborcza while in Hungary the left-wing Népszabadság is very strong too.  In Slovakia, where the press has in effect adopted a single ideological position, one might well ask how this situation affects freedom of thought and public discussion. I am afraid the impact is negative.

How is it possible that the Slovak media (with the exception of state-run TV) are so convergent in their views?  There are several reasons.  A small country whose literary and journalistic traditions go back only as far as the first half of the 19th century, Slovakia experienced freedom and pluralism only for a brief period between 1918 and 1938, when it was part of a democratic Czechoslovakia. After the war communism succeeded in completely erasing all memories of freedom, which made most of the journalists from that period basically unable to function after 1989. Dozens of communist journalists did survive for a few years in the open competition following the fall of communism but the idea of independence was so alien to them that they promptly aligned themselves with a new collectivist ideology – that of nationalism. And while nationalism, under the helm of  Mečiar, thrived in the early nineties, it soon started declining and the media with a nationalist orientation did not survive in the free market either.

There have been some notable exceptions. The first editor-in-chief of the daily SME was a former member of the communist party and a young journalist who fought a heroic battle for the paper’’s independence. Once, in a particularly fraught moment, he said to me: The problem isn’’t as much the struggle with Mečiar as the fact that I am not sure of my own independence.  I have never experienced it and don’’t know what it is supposed to be like.  His self-doubt alone was, for course, evidence of his thirst for freedom which he proved by making his paper highly successful.

In general, however, it was a completely new generation of young people who came to dominate the media after 1989. They came literally from the streets, rushing in to set up newspapers and journals, private radio stations and, later, commercial TV stations with great gusto. There were hundreds of them and their formative collective experience was the struggle for independence and the resistance to Mečiar. The only democratic alternative at the time was a grouping of right-wing parties which stood not only for economic but also civic liberties. Young journalists got fixated on a silly paradigm which equates human freedom with the political Right. On the other hand, the experience of fighting a dictator had a positive impact: it has instilled the journalists with a respect for liberal values, including the protection of minority rights, something that is very important in Slovakia with its large Hungarian and Roma minorities.

The right-wing trend continued after another abrupt generation change. Many representatives of the promising new generation of the 1990s made use of their popularity and switched to politics or PR agencies, while others found jobs as press spokesmen for large companies. However, the new generation (a journalist over 40 is a rare exception) followed in the footsteps of their predecessors.  They have found a new enemy, the left-wing populist Prime Minister Fico. Although he constantly complains about media bias, it is his attacks against the media that confirm Slovak journalists in their conviction that the Left is a threat to their freedom and independence.  Paradoxically, Prime Minister Fico and his party are enormously popular with the public (scoring over 40 percent in ratings) which goes to show that the Slovak media wield much less influence than they would like, and that a great majority of society simply does not read newspapers.  These are the people who vote Left.

Journalists and corruption

Apart from politicians or an ideological bias, another threat to media freedom is corruption. A few months after I became editor-in-chief of the daily SME, a rich entrepreneur came to see me asking me to spike an article that dealt with his activities. He mentioned that his company employed three hundred people who would have to be sacked if my article destroyed him. He said that personally he could not care less since he was rich and his wealth comprised half a billion korunas (around 17 million Euros) in real estate alone. I told him I was not going to spike the article and asked him to leave and never come back again. Later, when I mentioned this conversation to a friend who is also an entrepreneur, he explained what it was all about. The man spoke in a language only the initiated could understand – by referring to half a billion he was, in fact, offering me one per cent of this amount as a bribe, which apparently is the standard fee.   In approaching me he was also sounding out the new editor on behalf of the whole business community. If you turned him down, they will think you’re mad but they will not bother you again, my friend said. He was right. I never had a similar visit.

Unfortunately, big companies have found other ways: they bribe the journalists directly. They hire PR agencies that function basically as messengers delivering bribes to selected journalists (of whom, luckily, there are not many). An owner of one such PR agency told me recently that not a single day goes by without at least one article bought with a bribe appearing in the Slovak press. The price varies depending on the paper’’s significance but, he added ironically, the current crisis has slashed the value of bribes by half.

Sometimes, however, journalists face covert corruption which is the most difficult to resist. Some years ago our paper published a report on a luxury seaside trip to which one of the mobile phone companies invited the directors of several publishing houses (including ours) in what was an obvious conflict of interest. To be fair to our publisher, when we phoned him to say we would run an article that would not be to his liking, he just sighed and informed me that advertising revenue from this company comprised a significant part of our budget. After the article was published the company withdrew its advertisements from our paper for six months. It is also worth noting that apart from SME, not a single word about this affair was said or written in the Slovak media. I suspect that this is not the only example of media keeping silent out of fear of losing advertising revenue.

Corruption is endemic in all post-communist countries and the prospect of it disappearing is as little as the prospect of political pressure letting up. In the nineties I believed the media would benefit from being owned by Western publishers who would guarantee them higher quality and independence. These days, the majority of Slovak media is in the hands of publishers from Germany and the Czech Republic, yet in practice they keep themselves out of things and leave management and editorial decisions to local staff. Although this has minimized the influence of foreign owners on the Slovak media scene it may still be preferable to leaving the media in the hands of local capital with its close ties to politics and business (the PR agency owner mentioned earlier admitted that trying to bribe a foreign-owned paper is much more expensive and sometimes simply does not make financial sense).

Consciously parochial

Twenty years of freedom ought to be sufficient for a country to reveal its authentic character, which may have been hidden under an artificially imposed communist regime and the sediment of history.  What picture of Slovakia emerges from the state of its media? The country’’s national character might be defined as fundamentally parochial, yet fully conscious of its limitations. The Slovaks have no illusions about who they are and the media offer a pleasingly realistic reflection of this state of affairs. However, this attitude also results in a sort of sceptical self-satisfaction: there is no point in striving for higher standards, since in the provincial environment nobody would really appreciate it.

In terms of local issues and politics Slovak media behave in line with European traditions and over the past twenty years they have done a great deal of good work. In this period dozens of ministers were forced to leave their jobs as a result of scandals uncovered by newspapers. A number of newspapers and many journals have not survived in the market place, but apart from a few exceptions they were not worth shedding any tears over and our current media scene has become cleaner compared with the nineties, now that phenomena such as dangerous nationalism and obvious political manipulation have almost completely disappeared.

Yet the fact that only the best have survived does not necessarily mean they are really good. Slovak newspapers present a very superficial and blurred picture of the world and the country we live in, based on scraps of information without any attempt at analysis of the kind characteristic of Anglo-Saxon journalism. The current global financial crisis is a good example – very little of the international debate of its causes has seeped into the Slovak media.  I myself have caught myself spending much more time reading the foreign rather than our domestic press.

There is, however, one area where Slovakia has certainly kept up with the West: it is the extent to which life and media have been permeated by the internet.  The stormiest social debates (unlike in the Western press, discussions on web pages of newspapers are subject only to scant regulation) increasingly take place on the net rather than in the traditional media. The internet has been rapidly creating links within this small country whose topography — impassable mountains and deep valleys — had in the past made it difficult to create a collective social awareness. It is not clear what sort of self-image Slovak society will develop thanks to the internet but what is certain is that it will be the result of a free debate incapable of being suppressed by any political cartel.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Index on Censorship

We are grateful to Martin M. Šimečka for the permission to publish this text in English.