Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Slovakia
|Publisher||Committee to Protect Journalists|
|Publication Date||February 1998|
|Cite as||Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Slovakia, February 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c5654d23.html [accessed 31 July 2015]|
While attempting to maintain the appearance of growing democratization, the coalition government of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar boosted its efforts, both surreptitiously and overtly, to subdue independent and opposition media.
The government has frequently boasted that most of Slovakia's diverse media venues are privately owned and therefore independent. The ruling Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) has repeatedly denied influence on editorial policies, despite evidence that firms with close ties to the HZDS have been favored in privatizations or purchases of news organizations or related companies.
In anticipation of parliamentary and presidential elections in 1998, the HZDS moved to covertly seize control of media outlets through privatization of state-owned enterprises. For example, the state publishing house Danubiaprint, which prints many of Slovakia's largest dailies, was privatized in 1997 and is now run by individuals affiliated with the HZDS. Party cronies also took over management of the H-Press Joint-Stock Publishing Company, which has tried to buy out a number of independent regional dailies, sometimes by coercive means. In June, the Slovak legislature voted to prevent the privatization of the second channel of Slovak Television (STV), the state-owned national television company, after the Slovak Council for TV and Radio Broadcasting approved a license for the HZDS-affiliated Pro-TV company.
Although the government maintains control of STV (comprised of the only two channels that reach a national audience), its rigid and unprofessional programming has caused it to fall in ratings behind the private Markisa TV. The company – partially owned by U. S. investors – has become the most popular television station in Slovakia as its programs, especially news shows, have gradually grown bolder and more independent. Although its signal only reaches a little over half of Slovakia, Markisa TV has drawn authorities' ire in the form of verbal attacks, threats, and harassment.
Hard-hitting reporting on government activities may have prompted the authorities to retaliate against the independent station Radio Twist by suspending it from its main frequency in Bratislava for 25 hours on October 13. The state-run telecommunications company, Slovak Telecom, cut off the popular radio station from most of its listeners in the capital city citing unpaid bills for the use of the transmitter. The station's owner said Radio Twist was singled out for its critical news coverage. He said STV, public radio and the privately owned – though government-linked – VTV company, all owed vast amounts in arrears to Slovak Telecom, but remained on the air.
In addition to these oblique attacks, Slovakia's press came under frequent verbal assault from Prime Minister Meciar, whose government repeatedly demonstrated its antipathy toward the independent and opposition media.
On March 26, following protests by CPJ and other press freedom advocates, the Slovak parliament rejected the so-called Law on the Protection of the Republic, which would have severely restricted press freedom in Slovakia. The proposed amendment to the country's penal code, which would have made it a crime to "spread false information abroad," was defeated by a very narrow margin.
The Culture Ministry barred journalists from non-state media from its news conferences in March, and in October the government proposed raising the value-added tax from 6 percent to 23 percent on publications that devote more than 10 percent of their space to advertisements. This was widely viewed as an attempt to squeeze independent and opposition media, which rely heavily on advertising revenue. Bratislava's leading newspapers carried blank spaces on their front pages for a week in November to protest the proposal. They called off their protest after Slovak lawmakers suggested they would not approve the measure.
Meciar suspended weekly government press briefings on December 3 to punish journalists for questioning him about a mysterious trip he took to Russia with the head of the Slovak Intelligence Service on November 28, and about the role of an increasingly visible government advisor. After lashing out at journalists as well as lawmakers for their inquiries, the prime minister said that he and other members of his cabinet would no longer brief reporters during visits by foreign dignitaries to Slovakia unless provided for by diplomatic protocol.
Acts of violence and intimidation targeting the press punctuated the year. Reporter Adriana Hostovecka of the Paczelt news agency and a camera crew were beaten by guards and HZDS supporters while covering an HZDS rally in Bratislava on March 18. Peter Licak, editor of the Presovsky Vecernik daily in Presov, and Peter Toth, a reporter for the popular Sme newspaper in Bratislava, had their cars destroyed by arson. Licak believed the incident was related to attempts by an HZDS-affiliated firm to buy out his popular regional paper. Toth's has been the target of numerous libel suits and attempts at intimidation for his investigative reports.
The Bratislava offices of the first independent Slovak news agency, SITA, were burglarized only days before the new agency was scheduled to launch its new operation. The robbery of SITA's computers, fax machines, photocopiers, and satellite equipment hampered the agency's ability to compete with TASR, the state-run Slovak Press Agency.
Libel and slander cases filed by officials against journalists and media outlets, already burgeoning last year, continued to mount. Slovakia does not have a criminal defamation law, but it does have a statute giving special civil protection for defamation of state officials.